Belfast Telegraph

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Public body needs to get act together and work as team

By Steven Beacom

Published 08/07/2015

Antoinette McKeown
Antoinette McKeown

What now for Sport NI? Chief executive Antoinette McKeown remains suspended and nine of its 14 board members have resigned.

Public confidence in this public body is draining faster than a Serena Williams serve.

The aim of Sport NI is to develop sport in Northern Ireland. Tough to do that when the organisation seems to be falling apart itself.

On Monday night Gerard Campbell, Paul Cummings, John D'Arcy, Eddie Lynch, Roisin Mallon, Shane McCullough, Danny O'Connor, John O'Neill and Geoff Wilson walked away from the Sport NI board. All nine of them.

That left just five remaining. Chair Brian Henning, vice-chair Ian McAvoy and Richard Bullick attended a meeting that evening with Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

The two others still on the board, Andrea Bingham and Brian Delaney, are on holiday.

The meeting had been called on Friday by Ms Ni Chuilin to discuss a report into "serious allegations" about the "leadership, management and the overall culture" at Sport NI.

Those who resigned, and indeed the rest of the board, all well respected figures in their own fields, were taken aback by the request.

Even so - and despite the fact that Sport NI is sailing through some choppy waters - for so many to jump ship ahead of a meeting with the Sports Minister was an extreme move.

Why? Well, the resignation letter from 'the nine' stated they stepped down because "conditions no longer exist in which we feel we can make an important contribution to sport". That does not tell the whole story.

The prime reason they quit came down to fear - the fear that they would face the wrath of Ms Ni Chuilin and were concerned that at the meeting they would be informed they were no longer required.

Yet it is understood the latter was never going to happen - not at that meeting anyway.

The Sports Minister's plan was always to tell those from Sport NI to get their house in order, not to leave it there and then.

Board members, who volunteered for their positions, were also scared that their reputations could be harmed by staying with a body that is enduring some troubled times.

Sport NI has been without its chief executive Ms McKeown for four months. She is under suspension pending investigation into leadership issues in the organisation, which has become so fractured at the top lately more grievances have been aired than during six months of EastEnders!

The soap opera continues.

So, too, do worries among the many outstanding employees in Sport NI's 150-strong workforce about what happens next. Insiders tell me that this year two camps have emerged, with Ms McKeown and Nick Harkness, who was acting chief executive prior to the current incumbent's arrival in 2013, at the forefront of each.

For years Sport NI has spoken about the value of teamwork. Time to practise what they preach.

The organisation needs to get its act together because the general public and some in influential Stormont circles are starting to wonder if it is worth all this hassle... and embarrassment.

Belfast Telegraph

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