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Minister speaks of 'difficulties' over absence of Sport NI's boss

By Steven Beacom

Published 20/04/2015

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

The body tasked with developing sport in Northern Ireland is going through "difficulties" over its chief executive remaining on leave, the Sports Minister has said.

Caral Ni Chuilin was speaking for the first time about the situation at Sport NI, whose boss is on leave from her £75,000-a-year post.

Antoinette McKeown - the first woman to become chief executive of the publicly-funded organisation - has not been at work for at least seven weeks.

The reasons for her absence have not been made public.

However, it is understood an investigation is under way into a number of grievances lodged both by and against her.

In her first comments on the matter, the Sinn Fein minister said Sport NI was experiencing "some difficulties".

However, she said she was looking forward to a resolution.

"I can't get into the details. It would be totally inappropriate," the minister told the Belfast Telegraph.

"There are certainly sensitivities but when it is concluded I know that Sport NI, as they are doing at the moment, will keep doing what they are doing, working with groups on the ground, providing support to grassroots communities and providing support to our elite athletes, who are doing a really good job. But they are going through some difficulties and need to come out of them in the best possible way to still have the public confidence that they have enjoyed for so many years.

"I can't say more than that, but I'm looking forward to a resolution."

Ms McKeown, who was previously head of the Consumer Council, was appointed chief executive of Sport NI in June, 2013.

However, in mid-March it emerged that she had been on leave for three weeks.

It was reported at the time that several internal issues had been raised against Ms McKeown.

Sport NI and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure have refused to give any explanation for the mother-of-two's absence.

The only comment provided was that she "has not left her post".

On March 19, a source close to Sport NI told the Belfast Telegraph: "A number of grievance procedures have been lodged against Ms McKeown.

"She herself has lodged a grievance. She has been absent for three weeks."

Ms McKeown would only say: "I am on leave. I remain in my post."

Sport NI, which receives around £28m in public money each year, would not say how long Ms McKeown is expected to be on leave, or if it is paid or unpaid leave.

The body also refused to confirm that a number of grievances were under investigation and would not provide any information about the complaints.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has so far refused to comment and said it was a matter for Sport NI.

Background

Sport NI is the leading public body for the development of sport in Northern Ireland. On its website, it says its vision is to promote "a culture of lifelong enjoyment and success in sport which contributes to a healthy, fair and prosperous society". Sport NI has three strategic objectives: increased participation in sport and physical recreation; improved sporting performances; and improved efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of sport.

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