A report on the use of council funds in the North to make payments to loyalist paramilitaries and other politically connected groups is a major embarrassment for the main political parties.
A forerunner to the larger RHI ‘cash for ash’ corruption scandal at Stormont, the ‘Social Investment Fund’ (SIF) was used as a slush fund for the parties to transfer public monies to their supporters and cronies. It was administered by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont, now known as the Executive Office, which was then controlled by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Supposedly set up in 2012 to help disadvantaged areas across the Six Counties, the Six County Auditor General Kieran Donnelly admitted that there were “serious conflicts of interest” and “a lack of governance” in how the 90 million pound fund was allocated.
In a carefully worded report, he described the situation as “very concerning”.
SIF first hit the headlines in 2016 in a row over a UDA figure’s role as a chief executive of a charity awarded a contract to manage 1.7 million pounds from the fund. Convicted paramilitary Dee Stitt (pictured, left), who was again arrested this year in connection with loyalist criminality, stood down as chief executive of Charter NI in September, but remains involved with the organisation.
A number of the fund’s grants, ostensibly intended to encourage paramilitaries into community activity, were instead responsible for supporting and increasing loyalist paramilitary violence.
The system for allocation of funds involved steering groups packed full of community figures linked to both Sinn Fein and the DUP. It has now been linked to corrupt practices after it was confirmed that some of those who sat on the steering groups also worked for groups subsequently awarded huge financial windfalls.
Among them was a convicted loyalist paramilitary killer who was employed as operations manager and lead partner in a million-pound project, after sitting on the steering group which awarded the funding.
However, other beneficiaries were described as legitimate, and some were praised.
DUP MP Emma Pengelly continued to defend the scheme saying; “Every SIF project had a full business case and economic appraisal”.
Sinn Fein also defended the scheme with Derry representative Raymond McCartney claiming it was “based on a progressive ethos, seeking to empower local communities and include them in the decision making process”.
There is no indicated that the SIF scandal will prevent the return of power-sharing at Stormont.
Former Sinn Fein Six County Minister John O’Dowd said last week that the various corruption scandals are not “the major sticking block” preventing a return of the Six County Assembly.
He said his party would accept DUP Arlene Foster returning as first minister, despite the accusations ranged against her in the RHI inquiry. “The sticking block is language rights, same-sex marriage rights, a rights-based society and a true commitment to power-sharing,” he said.