Long says Assembly Speaker has questions to answer over SIF role

Alliance Leader Naomi Long MLA has said the Assembly Speaker has questions to answer after he declared he would recuse himself from any decisions on business involving the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF), despite having already rejected an attempt by Assembly members to query the matter.

Robin Newton MLA was a member of the East Belfast steering group for SIF, the multi-million pound scheme which has come under fire for its lack of transparency and awarding millions to Charter NI, which is headed up by self-confessed UDA commander Dee Stitt.

Following media enquiries, Mr Newton declined to set out his role in the decision to award the money to Charter NI, but instead issued a statement via the Assembly stating when a request for an urgent oral question was received in relation to the matter last month, it was refused on procedural advice, with any future questions to be delegated to the Principal Deputy Speaker.

“The role of the Speaker is to protect the interests, integrity and procedures of the House, and to ensure fairness in the way business is conducted,” said Mrs Long.

“The fact he has now acknowledged this is a potential conflict of interest and has decided to recuse himself from any further business deliberations on the matter is welcome, however, it raises a serious question as to why he did not do so at the first opportunity when this issue came before him.

“The Speaker was in exactly the same position regarding membership of the steering group back in October, when he took a decision to refuse an attempt to raise the matter in the Assembly.

“The Speaker enjoys a privileged position, in that MLAs are not permitted to question his rulings and decisions. He has recently threatened to treat MLAs who do so in the Chamber, in the press or on social media less favourably when they try to participate in future Assembly business on behalf of their constituents.

“Given that lack of accountability and the importance of his role in protecting the authority of the Assembly to challenge and hold the Executive to account, it is all the more important he is seen to be fully open, transparent and consistent in his approach.

“I think the Speaker needs to consider whether by ignoring media enquiries on this issue and failing to explain in detail both his role and also why he did not recuse himself before taking a decision on the first question, whether damage will be caused to his perceived impartiality and to the wider reputation of the Assembly.”

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