agendaNi outlines the recent controversy surrounding the management of Executive Office funding for communities experiencing high levels of socio-economic deprivation.
Described as the Executive Office’s ‘pet project’, the storm surrounding the handling of the Social Investment Fund first arose when it was announced that £1.7 million Belfast East Employability Project was to be managed by Charter NI – whose Chief Executive Dee Stitt is linked to paramilitarism.
The fund, which was created to tackle deprivation in the worst affected communities, was robustly defended by those in the Executive Office who pointed to a widely-represented steering group to oversee the spending and audit the process in which it was distributed.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that criticism of the Stitt-link “does a grave disservice to the good and decent people right throughout the country who are working daily to ensure that the lives of the people in the community that they come from are enriched by delivering valuable programmes.”
He added: “So let’s get away from the nonsense that this is directed at paramilitaries. This is directed at communities and the communities are the people who are making the decisions.”
However he did later emphasise that Stitt should reconsider his position, a call that was not echoed by First Minister Arlene Foster.
The storm was likely to blow over, had it not been for the emergence of footage of Stitt in an interview with The Guardian, criticising the Government and describing the loyalist North Down Defenders band as “our homeland security”.
Senior DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson took the opportunity to state that Stitt should not be in the Chief Executive position. That was promptly followed by Arlene Foster stating that she was of the understanding that Stitt was to step down as CEO, and welcoming it. However, the pair were left red-faced when Stitt did not resign and instead garnered continued support from the organisation’s board.
Attempts by the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon to have an urgent oral question heard on the matter was rejected by Assembly Speaker Robin Newton. He was later forced to apologise after it was revealed that as well as sitting on the steering group which appointed Charter NI the funding, Newton also provided advice to the group. He later conceded that he should not have declared a conflict of interest on Mallon’s request, giving “time pressures” as a reason for not doing so.
Now it appears that the PSNI and the Executive are at odds over the current make up of Charter NI. PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin’s claim that Charter NI has “connections” to the UDA paved the way for a meeting with the Executive Office. Following the meeting a statement from the Executive Office said they had now been “assured” that the PSNI has no concerns about the work of the group. However, at the same time Chief Constable George Hamilton relayed that he stood by the earlier claims by his colleague, which were “an accurate assessment of the PSNI’s position”.
To date the Executive Office have dismissed calls to halt SIF funding to the group. However, there is no doubt that the Charter NI saga has damaged the public reputation of the SIF scheme and it remains to be seen as to just how resilient the scheme, which will now be under constant scrutiny, will be to any potential further controversy.