Arlene Foster is staying silent on the growing controversy around Speaker Robin Newton, who won’t resign from his £87,500 a year job despite claims he misled the Assembly.
Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance, the Greens and TUV were all united yesterday in calling on the DUP MLA to immediately step aside.
But Mrs Foster last night remained silent when the Belfast Telegraph contacted her to comment on her position on the Speaker staying in his job.
Meanwhile, Mr Newton issued a short statement but then went to ground and wouldn’t give any media interviews.
In his statement, the East Belfast MLA denied allegations in a BBC Spotlight programme that he misled the Assembly over the true nature of his role with the UDA-linked organisation Charter NI. But he said he wouldn’t run again for Speaker if the Assembly returns.
Spotlight reported that when Mr Newton blocked an urgent question on the awarding of public funds to the controversial charity last autumn, he hadn’t revealed his key role as an adviser to the group.
The BBC obtained internal Charter NI papers, including copies of its board minutes, which it said proved that Mr Newton had “an important role in helping to run Charter NI, including attending full board meetings from mid-2012”.
Mr Newton sat on a Social Investment Fund (SIF) steering group which awarded Charter NI a £1.7m contract.
The charity’s chief executive is UDA boss Dee Stitt.
His North Down gang has been linked to drug dealing, racketeering and intimidation.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Rather than facing up to what he’s done, Robin Newton is only digging an even deeper hole for himself.
“The documentary evidence shows he performed an advisory role in Charter NI and was a figure of importance within the charity.”
Sinn Fein MLA Caral Ni Chuilin said Mr Newton’s position as Speaker was “completely untenable”.
She claimed he had “totally compromised the neutrality of that office” through his previous Assembly performance.
By refusing to resign, he was further eroding “public confidence in the Stormont institutions”, she said.
“The Speaker should be above reproach and independently accountable to the political institutions,” she said.
“Robin Newton should resign with immediate effect.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the revelations about Mr Newton raised important questions for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
He said Mrs Foster must “very quickly” respond to the disclosures on Spotlight.
“The public have every right to be angry – the last 10 years of government in Northern Ireland has brought us scandals in RHI, Red Sky, NAMA and now SIF,” he said.
“The Spotlight programme also contains huge questions for Sinn Fein – they cannot wash their hands of their role in all of this.
“As a party they were jointly responsible for SIF funds. They were jointly responsible for the channelling of funds to groups linked to the UDA. This was their status quo and they were up to their necks in it.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said the issue went “right to the heart of public confidence in politics in Northern Ireland at a time when the credibility of Stormont is already at an all-time low”.
He said the Speaker’s office should be “above reproach” and rather than resign after he chairs the election of a new Speaker, Mr Newton “should simply go now”.
Mr Beggs called for a “radical investigation” into SIF.
“It needs to get to the heart of how the SIF funds were used by the DUP and Sinn Fein,” he said.
Alliance’s David Ford said Mr Newton should resign as Speaker immediately.
“We would also seek to refer Mr Newton to the Commissioner for Standards, once there is a new person elected to that role,” he added.
Mr Ford called for the Audit Office to launch an investigation into SIF.
“There also needs to be a revised paramilitary strategy which is backed by all parties (with) clearly defined goals and targets. Only by doing so can we finally remove the poison of paramilitarism from society,” he added.
Green leader Steven Agnew claimed Mr Newton’s “lack of candour” on his exact role in Charter NI had been “startling”.
He added: “The entire issue of the distribution of SIF and Robin Newton’s association with Charter NI has further eroded public trust and confidence in our institutions.”
In his statement yesterday, Mr Newton 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.”
East Antrim Ulster Unionist Assemblyman Roy Beggs has contacted Schrader, requesting a meeting about potential plans to transfer some production lines from sites in Carrickfergus and Antrim to Changzhou, China.
Mr Beggs said “I have been contacted by concerned constituents who have been advised by Unite the Union that Sensata, who purchased Schrader in 2014, are considering moving some production lines from their Carrickfergus and Antrim production facilities to their Changzhou plant in China. I have contacted Schrader seeking a meeting to be updated on local job prospects and the future plans of this important company to the Carrickfergus area.”
East Antrim Ulster Unionist Party MLA Roy Beggs has added his support to the Energy Saving Trust’s 17th annual Energy Saving Week.
Mr Beggs said “Homes in Northern Ireland could save nearly £7m per year by simply draught proofing windows and doors in their properties. Additional measures such as insulating pipes, upgrading heating controls, getting a new boiler and topping up your hot water cylinder, loft and wall insulation will save you money. You can also reduce electricity bills by avoiding standby and turning devices off, turning lights off, line drying clothes and choosing energy efficient appliances.”
Grants are available in Northern Ireland to help with some of these measures. The Government run an affordable warmth scheme which may provide a package of energy-efficiency and heating measures if your household income is less than £20,000. The NIHE boiler replacement scheme also offers up to £1,000 grants for owner occupiers seeking to replace boiler to energy efficient oil or gas boilers, to switch from oil to gas or to switch to a wood pellet boiler, dependent on income and boiler efficiency.
Sinn Fein has been accused of putting narrow party interests ahead of NHS patients as a report warned that big decisions on the health service couldn’t be made because no Executive is in place.
An update one year on from the launch of the Bengoa Report revealed that some progress had been made on changing the way healthcare is delivered in Northern Ireland but it was mostly “preparatory and enabling work”.
The report stressed that ministers had to be in place to implement the 10-year road map.
“Whilst progress can continue to be made in bringing forward proposals for change, difficult decisions will be required, as set out by the Executive and the then minister (Michelle O’Neill) upon the launch of Delivering Together,” it stated.
“The nature of these decisions and their impact on the population warrants ministerial consideration,” it stressed.
The Bengoa Report was the Stormont Executive’s flagship blueprint to transform the health service. Launched amid much fanfare and rare political consensus among the main Stormont parties, the 10-year road map was the devolved administration’s response to an independent analysis of the struggling system by a panel of experts led by Spanish Professor Rafael Bengoa.
UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said: “All this progress report has done is illustrate that there hasn’t been much progress made at all.
“It is outrageous that despite January 2017 being a target date to have a full strategy in place to tackle waiting lists, 10 months later not a single action has been taken and waiting times have never been so bad.
“When Michelle O’Neill stood in the Assembly last October and warned that our health service was at breaking point, she said that as minister she would provide the leadership needed to drive change.
“Within months Sinn Fein had walked away from the Assembly, placing party politics ahead of the needs of patients.”
Former DUP health minister Simon Hamilton said: “For most of the last 12 months Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive to take forward the much-needed reform of our health service.
“In blocking the formation of an Executive, Sinn Fein has placed party political demands ahead of the needs of patients.”
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan urged the DUP and Sinn Fein to compromise so power-sharing could be restored and Bengoa implemented.
“Patients continue to pay the price of political failure,” he said.
“That is unacceptable.
“It’s time for the parties with the big mandates to come to an honourable compromise and get on with the business of delivering a health service that meets the needs of those who use it.”
Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said the health officials’ report on the response to Bengoa showed “remarkable progress” — but added the process would “run out of road” without a minister in place.
Addressing Sinn Fein and the DUP, the South Belfast MLA said: “Still we have political leaders whose main interest is in diverting blame on to others rather than recognising with the biggest mandates come the biggest responsibilities.
“The political deal, including all-party agreement to implement the Bengoa proposals, is there to be done and we should be getting on with the job and focusing on serving the public interest without delay.”
Sinn Fein health spokesman Pat Sheehan said it is important that work continues on the plan set out by Ms O’Neill.
“A number of commitments have been delivered and clearly preparatory and enabling work is ongoing,” he said.
“Transformation must be based firmly on the principle of working in partnership with those who use, and those who deliver, health and social care services. It must also be underpinned by sufficient additional funding as identified by Michelle O’Neill from the outset.”
Yesterday’s report also warned that more investment was required to deliver the transformation in healthcare.
“The financial position remains challenging and this is not anticipated to change,” it said. “The executive agreed that transformation cannot happen without investment. It is inevitable that the pace of transformation will be impacted by the level of funding available.”
The most probing interviews: Roy Beggs Jr, East Antrim UUP MLA, on disagreeing with his MP father over the peace process… and a close encounter with an angry cow.
Q. You’re 55 and married to Sandra (“we’re of a similar age”), a former retail manager who now works as a part-time secretary in your constituency office. You have three children – Stewart (26), a dentist; Matthew (24), a civil engineer; and Amy (23), a final year dentistry student. You’ve been married for 28 years. How did you two meet?
A. Our eyes met on the dance floor at a Young Farmers dance five years before we got married. We went to London and then Malta on honeymoon.
Q. Your father and namesake Roy (81) is a retired school vice-principal and former East Antrim MP, and your (“slightly younger”) mum Wilma was an administrator before focusing on running the family farm outside Larne. You also have a brother Ian (57), a qualified engineer who works on the farm, and two sisters – Roma (56), a physiotherapist, and Lorraine (53), a dentist. What was growing up like?
A. We’d a happy childhood and we made our own innocent fun. We made tunnels through the hayshed, explored the wild Glynn river valley and returned with sticks which we used to make improvised pole vaults and we filled bran bags full of straw as a landing area. It was fun. I smile when I think about it.
Q. How much influence has your dad had on your career?
A. We have a similar outlook on many issues, but not all. Occasionally I’ve compared notes with him but the best advice he gave me was to decide for myself because I will have to satisfy myself in the long-term with the decision made.
Q. You’re in the rather unusual position of having received death threats from both loyalists opposing the peace process and dissident republicans. Tell us about that.
A. In 1999 we were told there was going to be a hit on one Ulster Unionist MLA one particular weekend, and I was among those approached by police officers acting on specific information. On the other occasion, in the early 2000s, the police had found a list with my name on it…
Q. In 2003 you succeeded in having Irish rebel music removed from Aer Lingus’s in-flight entertainment. Was it a tough battle?
A. I was on a flight from Dublin to Boston – at that stage the DUP wouldn’t have flown through Dublin – and was surprised to hear music advocating the IRA. I simply asked: “Would Arabian Airlines be playing music advocating Osama Bin Laden?” The issue was resolved quickly. It’s important that we don’t glorify terrorism and do everything we can to prevent young people being drawn into organised crime gangs here.
Q. You’re considered to be one of the more hardline members of the UUP. Did your father’s suspension from the DUP in 1981 and subsequent defection to the UUP influence your party choice? Was there ever a time you though you might go to the DUP?
A. No, I feel much more at home with the UUP. Their approach to unionism, of reasonable accommodation with our neighbours, is the best method of guaranteeing Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, rather than the ‘them and us’ approach of others.
Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?
A. I do. I was recently appointed as an elder in Raloo Presbyterian Church in Larne. I’ve also served as a Boys’ Brigade officer there for 20 years.
Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you, and does death frighten you?
A. Grandparents. As a family we all would have been very close. Death doesn’t frighten me – if you’re prepared to meet your maker, what’s to fear?
Q. You like watching sport, cycling and taking long country walks with your family, and relaxing with the odd glass of red wine. You also used to love playing rugby. How do you relax outside politics?
A. I also help my dad on the farm by way of keeping fit. Before work this morning, for example, I put a lot of silage into a wheelbarrow and fed the cattle with it.
Q. You often hear about the dangers of working with animals. Have you had any close encounters?
A. I’ve had to jump a gate to get out of a pen after being chased by a cow that had just calved. I was trying to help the calf get onto its first feed when its mother went for me, but I escaped unscathed.
A mother of a young calf is more dangerous than a bull, and statistics prove that.
Q. Have you had any bad experiences with the media?
A. Peter Robinson once called me a “loathsome creature” in the Press when I backed David Trimble. That was my first real experience in politics of someone being nasty, but it says a lot more about Peter Robinson than it does about me.
Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.
A. My wedding day – October 20, 1989 – when my beautiful wife finally turned up after making me wait a while.
Q. And what about the worst day of your life? What’s the most traumatic thing you’ve been through?
A. The day my son Stewart, who was four, broke his leg in an accident with a link box on the farm. I had to meet him at AE before he was transferred to hospital.
I remember spending a few nights in a chair at the side of his bed.
He was very young to be in hospital. He had an operation to have his leg re-set but initially we didn’t know how serious it was going to be.
My dad almost lost his leg when he was in his 20s.
He was climbing a wall when the top of it fell on him.
Surgeons were recommending amputation at one stage.
Q. Which politician from the so-called ‘other side’ do you most admire?
A. The SDLP’s Mark H Durkan, for his wit.
Q. As the son of a Westminster politician, did you ever foresee a time when there would be no Ulster Unionist MPs? And will there be any in the future?
A. I wouldn’t have foreseen that. The current impasse might well result in new political arrangements being made. I suspect the most damaging change has been the St Andrews Agreement, which has created the race to vote for one extreme or the other, which in turn has polarised political representation. Despite RHI and Nama, people believe they have to vote DUP to stop Sinn Fein getting in.
Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate?
A. I’m very frustrated, particularly when receiving complaints from constituents having to wait unreasonably long for health service treatment. There’s a wide range of decisions that aren’t being made, and we can’t continue without ministers in post. There will either have to be devolved ministers appointed, or authority passed to direct rule.
Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?
A. We aren’t doing the full job that we’re elected to do and it’s time for change.
Q. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. Decide for yourself, because you-have to live with the long-term consequences of your actions and decisions.
Dad gave that to me at a critical time in the peace process. He and I ended up taking different views on a vote prior to going into government in 1999. He had a more hardline approach than me. I ultimately decided to support Trimble in the establishment of the first Executive when IRA decommissioning hadn’t yet taken place. We didn’t fall out. I did so to apply pressure on Sinn Fein so they couldn’t blame unionism for any collapse of the Assembly at that time.
Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would turn to?
A. Probably my dad – and my wife.
Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
A. My dad. He was a strict disciplinarian; he was the enforcer at Larne High School. He worked hard and looked after us, and he was always very good in company. He knew a lot of people. He and mum are also fantastic dancers.
Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?
A. I was always taught to treat people as you find them. At school I played with a mixed group at lunchtime and on the school teams, as was the case when I played for the Firsts at Larne Rugby Club. We all worked together for whatever team we played on.
Q. What’s your favourite place?
A. Castlerock. I had a wee touring caravan and most summers our family usually went there or Benone.
Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?
A. I developed a children and young people’s group in Carrickfergus which ultimately was successful in establishing a Sure Start, helping mums and young children in parts of Carrickfergus and Larne.
Q. Have you ever had a nickname?
Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
A. When I was 19 a group of us elected to go waterskiing in Newferry in December – which I did without a suitable wetsuit. I remember going for a run afterwards to get warmed up and then subsequently discovering I’d been running with a thorn in my heel, but because it was so cold I couldn’t feel it.
Q. You and Sandra live in Glenoe while Stewart works in London, Matthew is “drilling tunnels under cities in Canada” and Amy is currently studying in Dundee. You must miss them?
A. I do. I hope they all come back at some point but they’re adults and have to decide things for themselves. But it took a while getting used to all three being away.
Q. You went to Glynn Primary and Larne Grammar before spending a year out on company placement and then heading to Queen’s to study engineering. Briefly tell us about your career to date.
A. Immediately prior to becoming an MLA I worked as a production manager for five years at (the now closed) Simms and Young.
Before that I worked for different manufacturing companies in production management.
Q. You became involved in politics at university, joined the Young Unionists and served as secretary of the Ulster Young Unionist Council (UYUC). You were also constituency secretary at your local UUP branch. Was your dad a major influence in your decision to enter politics?
A. There was always some politics discussed over the kitchen table, although I was the only family member actively involved – I helped my dad put up posters at election time.
At university I took part in the Young Unionist protest march against the Anglo-Irish Agreement from Londonderry to Belfast.
I never made any political ambitions for myself but I originally thought at some point that I might become a councillor.
Q. If the Assembly collapses, what’s next for you?
A. More time farming and I’ll look for an engineering management role.