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Sport NI not fit for purpose, says sacked CEO Antoinette McKeown

By Sophie Inge

Published 28/11/2016

Former Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown
Former Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown

The sacked CEO of Sport NI has blasted the organisation's treatment of her as "cruel, vicious and inhumane".

Antoinette McKeown, a former CEO of the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, was appointed the first female boss of Sport NI in June 2013.

Her time at the organisation was marred by a series of rows, including regarding the safety of GAA stadium Casement Park, and a number of staff made accusations of harassment and bullying in the workplace.

She was suspended on full pay in March 2015 and her dismissal was confirmed last week.

But in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Life newspaper, Antoinette McKeown (50) claimed she was only trying to do her job.

"I'm no longer an employee and I am going to fight for what is right," she said.

"I was brought into Sport NI with a very clear remit from the board to lead change, manage under-performance at a senior level and to restore public accountability, which had long been lost.

"I have been sacked for doing the job I was brought in to do."

She accused the organisation of mismanaging the £30m of taxpayers' money it receives each year.

"There was no project management, risk management, leadership or controls in place," she told the paper.

"Junior positions were in charge of making big decisions which cost the taxpayer huge amounts of money.

"I heard harrowing accounts from staff about how they were treated, in particular junior and vulnerable staff.

"No decent human being could have failed to have been troubled by what I heard and I was deeply affected by that.

"I felt so powerless as a new CEO, because the culture of fear was so strong that no one wanted to formalise the complaint and I couldn't take it forward without a formal complaint in the interests of fairness."

Ms McKeown said she was repeatedly ignored and asked to do tasks that were of no real benefit for the organisation at the time.

"I played by the rules, but I was working with people who weren't even playing on the same pitch," she said. The organisation, she said, was "not fit for purpose".

"The Department [of Culture, Arts and Leisure] knew that Sport NI was dysfunctional, I was advised of that, and sporting bodies who worked with Sport NI had concerns, as did staff."

She also claimed that the organisation has refused to return her personal diaries, in which she documented "harrowing stories" she had been told and meetings with staff.

"I have spent sleepless nights worrying about those diaries and the safety of staff as a result of what is contained in the diaries," she said. Ms McKeown is now preparing to go to an employment tribunal to expose "everything that's so wrong with Sport NI".

"I've endured 20 months of torture made worse by the total absence of a duty of care from Sport NI," she said.

"The treatment of me has in my view been cruel, vicious and inhumane.

"It's inconceivable that the Sport NI-appointed panel which heard my case could have reached the decision to dismiss me. I presented irrefutable evidence and harrowing accounts from witnesses."

A short statement from the sporting body's Malone Road headquarters said: "Following a disciplinary process, the CEO, Antoinette McKeown, has been dismissed, subject to appeal.

"Sport NI are unable to make any further comment."

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