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'Quit or I'll sack you' - Sinn Fein minister Ni Chuilin's 24-hour ultimatum to ex-chair of Sport NI

In a sensational interview, Brian Henning challenges Caral Ni Chuilin's account of his departure from one of the biggest jobs in Northern Ireland sport

Published 08/04/2016

Brian Henning says he was told to resign from his post or face the sack. ( Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph )
Brian Henning says he was told to resign from his post or face the sack. ( Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph )
Journalist Ivan Little talks to Brian Henning at his Co Down home
Sports Minister Caral Ní Chuilín
Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown

The former chair of Sport NI Brian Henning has broken his silence over his shock departure from the organisation last week with a sensational claim that Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin told him and his vice chair Ian McAvoy to resign or be sacked.

Mr Henning, who has had a successful career as a property developer in multi-million projects here and in the Republic, said he was devastated to receive the ultimatum at a meeting with Ms Ni Chuilin last week.

His allegation, in an exclusive Belfast Telegraph interview, contradicts what the Sports Minister said in a radio interview a week ago when she claimed the chair and vice-chair both felt "the time was right to step aside to allow some new leadership on the board of Sport NI".

Mr Henning (61) claimed that he was effectively pushed out only five months after receiving a positive annual assessment - his third - for his leadership of the publicly-funded organisation through the turbulent years when it had been mired in controversy.

Among the issues which have been widely reported in recent times has been the suspension from her job of Sport NI's chief executive Antoinette McKeown, who is currently the subject of separate grievance proceedings.

Nine of the 14 board members resigned last year from Sport NI, an arm's-length body within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that promotes sporting activities across the region.

Staff also claimed there was widespread poor treatment and bad practice in Sport NI.

Speaking at his Co Down home yesterday, Mr Henning claimed that relations between Sport NI and Ms Ni Chuilin's DCAL had been "toxic" for some time and he said the department's officials lacked any understanding or feeling for sport in Northern Ireland.

Mr Henning, who vowed that he would never take another public service post after three-and-a-half-years as Sport NI's chair, said he had been disappointed by Ms Ni Chuilin's ministerial style and leadership, and claimed she rarely met him.

"I found it strange that I had so little direct contact with her because my counterparts in Scotland and Wales all know their ministers well," he explained.

"I would only ever meet my minister when she called a meeting about a specific subject."

Asked if he believed there was a hidden DCAL agenda behind his exit from his Sport NI role, Mr Henning said: "I don't know. I can't say that there was a hidden agenda. I can't say that there wasn't."

Mr Henning said he had thought Sport NI had been turning a corner before he and Mr McAvoy were summoned to a meeting with Ms Ni Chuilin last week to discuss the findings of another investigation into the organisation.

The report found that a third of Sport NI staff claimed to have been the victim of bullying and discrimination in the workplace and said there was an absence of clear leadership and direction from the board and senior management team.

Mr Henning said: "It was on Good Friday afternoon that we got an email asking us to come to a meeting the following Wednesday to discuss the interim executive leadership team report. We only got copies of the report 15 minutes before the meeting and when we asked for more time to absorb the conclusions we got another half-hour.

"Then the minister came in and read a prepared statement in which she said she was concerned about the report's findings before telling us she would be asking us to submit our resignations by 11am the next day or she would sack us."

Mr Henning said he "gave the minister a piece of my mind", adding: "I think the term 'stitch-up' was used and I said I was absolutely incredulous after all my sacrifices for and commitment to Sport NI.

"I had knocked my pan in and worked really hard to recruit new board members and induct them and implement strategic initiatives. I did what I thought was appropriate and proper to support the organisation and lead the board and do my job, and I would have been sacked for it if I hadn't resigned. And that is just weird, especially as I would have finished my term as chair in November.

"I asked the minister what it was she would be sacking me for if I didn't resign and she looked at her notes and said 'issues of leadership'.

"And I said I was the non-executive chair of the non-executive board. So my role in leadership was to lead the board, not Sport NI.

"I asked the minister if she was making me accountable for everything she thought was wrong about the organisation and ignoring everything that was right about it."

Mr Henning said he urged Ms Ni Chuilin to review her decision, but he claimed she told him she was not going to change her mind.

"She did offer me her hand, which I shook, and she said 'Brian, I'm sorry', but I don't know what that meant. Ian and I thought about what we were going to do overnight, but I wasn't going to go through a public sacking because that would have meant I would have been obliged to take up the cudgels and have a fight about it. But to what end?

"It wasn't going to help anybody in Sport NI. The decision had been made and our faces didn't fit anymore. Someone wanted rid of us.

"I put out a statement the next morning saying I had resigned but I have decided to speak out now to put the record straight. I am not going to let myself be maligned."

Mr Henning said he found it hypocritical that the Stormont-commissioned report into Sport NI had said that the body's Dignity at Work policy had not always been adhered to.

"Where's the Dignity at Work policy for me and Ian McAvoy? Where's the decency and process involved in getting an email on Good Friday saying 'turn up on Wednesday because we want to talk about a report we haven't sent you and give you 15 minutes to read it?'."

Mr Henning, who chaired a committee that set up the Bridge Integrated Primary School in Banbridge, said he defied anyone to point the finger at Sport NI and say it had failed to deliver for the sporting community here in any way.

I asked him why he thought that DCAL would want to get rid of him.

"Clearly they didn't want us about. Whatever strategy is coming, whatever they are going to do, we weren't required because perhaps we might put a proper structure around that.

"I don't know what is coming, but I do fear for the organisation whether they're going to keep it as an arm's-length body or whether they are going to take it back into DCAL.

"But the department know nothing about sport. Yes, there are good officers in there who work well with our people but I don't think that at the highest level they are interested in sport or care about sport. The minister did understand the impact that sport had in deprived communities, and lifting people's lives and giving them access to sport and the immense work that would do to help people be a part of the community and get the same advantages that people who are better off get.

"But I don't think the department give a fiddler's, because they wouldn't have done this to the organisation. It's crazy to take myself and Ian McAvoy (left) out. I didn't take the Sport NI job to get a gong or for money. I did it because I felt I could bring something to it that could make a difference."

Mr Henning said he was extremely disappointed to be leaving the role at a time when major advances had been made in promoting sport here and in dealings with bodies right across the UK.

"The way sport has gone forward in the last 10 years has been phenomenal. People don't realise the impact of sport in Northern Ireland. The employment in 2013 within the sports industry was 25,300, which is even more than US companies employ here."

In her Radio Ulster interview last week Ms Ni Chuilin again defended her handling of plans for the new Casement Park GAA stadium in Belfast.

She again denied that she knew anything about safety concerns over emergency exiting from the Andersonstown Road ground before 2015 despite repeated claims that senior aides attended meetings where the issues were raised long before that.

Mr Henning said: "The delivery of Casement Park has been an absolute drastic failure by the department.

"I don't understand why a more thorough, complete and safe approach to actually making sure it worked hadn't been put in place.

"Sport NI's safety officer (Paul Scott) did his bit and as far as I can see he has acted with integrity."

Mr Henning said that in the wake of his exit from Sport NI he planned to devote more time to his family.

He said he was also taking lessons on how to ride a motorbike.

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