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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Stormont Speaker embroiled in charity furore says he 'won't stand again'

Written by David Young

The Stormont Assembly's controversy-hit Speaker has said he will not stand for the position again, as he rejected claims he misled the chamber.

Democratic Unionist MLA Robin Newton has been embroiled in a long-standing furore over his alleged relationship with a publicly-funded charity with links to the UDA.

The latest development saw the East Belfast representative accused of misleading the Assembly by telling members he was not an official adviser to Charter NI.

BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme claimed Charter NI board minutes indicate he was, in fact, a key adviser to the charity.

In a statement released by the DUP on Mr Newton's behalf on Wednesday morning, he said: "I reject the allegations in the Spotlight programme.

"I did not mislead the NI Assembly. I have never been appointed to any position with Charter NI. I am not responsible for how others refer to me in their correspondence.

"I will not be a candidate for Speaker in any new Assembly. At the next NI Assembly sitting, I will chair the election of a new Speaker as the first matter of business."

The powersharing crisis at Stormont means the Assembly has not been sitting since earlier this year. It is still not clear whether it will reconvene in the short term.

Last year, Mr Newton apologised unreservedly to fellow MLAs for not delegating a decision to refuse an Assembly question on the controversy surrounding Charter NI.

In October 2016, he rejected a request for the Assembly to hear an urgent oral question on the charity and the conduct of its chief executive and alleged UDA commander Dee Stitt.

The Speaker represents the constituency where Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of an employment scheme as part of the Stormont Executive's contentious Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr Newton sat on a steering group that awarded the £1.7 million contract to Charter NI.

He told the Assembly he had also provided advice to the charity as part of constituency duties, though he insisted he never held an official position as an adviser.

After explaining the extent of his past involvement with the charity, Mr Newton then conceded he should not have ruled on the October 24, 2016 request lodged by the SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon due to conflict of interest concerns.

He delegated a later urgent oral question around the same issue to Sinn Fein Principal Deputy Speaker Caitriona Ruane.

He said he did not do the same with Ms Mallon's initial question due to "time pressure".

Intense public attention focused on Charter NI and the wider SIF scheme since controversy flared late last year over the appointment of convicted armed robber Stitt to the £35,000-a-year chief executive's role.

Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, faced down calls for his resignation in the wake of a newspaper interview in which he launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the Government and claimed his flute band in North Down provided "homeland security".

The SIF fund was established by the Stormont Executive to allocate £80 million to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2017, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Liam McBurney / PA Wire.