New details of a corruption scandal have undermined efforts to restore the Stormont Assembly in Belfast, despite reports of progress in negotiations.
Months of talks aimed at reviving the power-sharing Executive between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party were said to have been inching forward, with the parties closer to agreement on a number of key areas, including an Irish Language Act and legacy issues.
On Wednesday, new allegations were made in a BBC Spotlight programme about potentially illegal links between the DUP and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). It also made accusations of cronyism by both the DUP and Sinn Fein in the handling of Stormont’s eighty million pound ‘social investment fund’ (SIF).
The investigation revealed that the Assembly’s Speaker, Robin Newton of the DUP (pictured), played a key role in a UDA-linked organisation in receipt of the funds, a role that he has denied. According to the BBC Spotlight documentary, ‘Charter NI’, which is run by prominent UDA figure Dee Stitt and passes funds to a number of active UDA paramilitaries, has close links to the DUP.
In a statement made before the Stormont Assembly last November, Robin Newton has previously denied having a role in Charter NI, although documents obtained by the show confirmed he was working for the organisation as an advisor. He had that role at the same time as he sat on a powerful steering group that directed almost two million pounds in public money to the UDA-linked operation.
Despite concern at the Stormont Assembly over the use of public funds to support paramilitary activity, Newton had earlier blocked a question about Charter NI.
All of the main parties apart from the DUP have now called for his resignation. Sinn Fein chief whip Caral Ni Chuilin said Mr Newton’s position as speaker was “completely untenable”.
“He needs to resign with immediate effect, given the serious concerns. The public demand integrity in government,” she said.
Asked whether the allegations would impede the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP over powersharing, Ms Ni Chuilin said: “I don’t think anybody can ignore that. We have been consistent in saying that there needs to be integrity and understanding.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Newton “should immediately resign” as both speaker and an assembly member. He said the programme also raises “huge questions for Sinn Fein” as the office of the late Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, helped to oversee the fund and blocked an inquiry into the scandal late last year.
In response, Sinn Fein said its party “stands over the enormously successful SIF projects that are being delivered in the communities we represent”.
NORTH DOWN UDA TO NUMBER TEN DUP
The programme also claimed that the DUP used the fund to buy votes from hardline loyalist communities.
A UDA whistleblower interviewed by the show said that a DUP councillor attended a UDA meeting in June ahead of the General Election at which he handed out voter registration forms and DUP leaflets. There was a joint effort to drum up support for the party, which is now propping up the current minority Tory government.
The UDA member said the paramilitary group had an increasingly close relationship with the DUP over recent years. UDA factions publicly backed the DUP candidates ahead of the Assembly election earlier this year.
The man told Spotlight that a month before the General Election DUP councillor Wesley Irvine attended a meeting of the UDA’s North Down ‘battalion’ in Bangor, with the meeting chaired by the man alleged to be the group’s commander, Charter NI boss Dee Stitt.
He alleged that the former Mayor of North Down was there looking for voters and that prior to the meeting beginning all the women left and those present were asked to leave their phones outside the room.
He said that “the first item of business was for Wesley Irvine to run around the room handing out voter registration forms and DUP election material to chants of ‘DUP’ from Dee Stitt”.
He also warned that the UDA is “recruiting like mad”, with one boy of 15 or 16 appearing in his school uniform at a UDA meeting.
When asked why he was at a meeting of an illegal organisation, Mr Irvine told BBC Spotlight that the meeting which he attended in Bangor was “a flute band meeting” and that the “sole purpose of this was to encourage electoral registration”.
A number of UDA factions backed DUP candidates ahead of the Assembly election earlier this year. Lisburn and South Belfast boss Jackie McDonald called a series of meetings in which he ordered his members to back the DUP.
Accused of being in cahoots with the UDA, former leader Peter Robinson responding by saying “catch yourself on”, insisting that most political parties in the North hold meetings with former paramilitary leaders.