Belfast Telegraph

Sport NI urged to 'come clean' as questions mount over future of first female boss

By Deborah McAleese

Sport NI is facing immense political pressure to stop "hiding behind a wall of silence" as questions over the tenure of its first female boss continue to mount.

The Belfast Telegraph has learnt that the public body's chief executive Antoinette McKeown has been replaced as Sport NI's accounting officer while investigations are carried out into a number of grievances lodged both by and against her.

Without the accounting officer role, Ms McKeown is virtually powerless in any decision-making process.

An accounting officer is someone who may be called to account in the Assembly for the stewardship of the resources within the organisation's control. This person is usually the senior official in the organisation.

It is understood that the body's director of sports management services, Andrew Sloan, is currently acting as temporary accounting officer.

Despite repeated requests from the Belfast Telegraph, Sport NI - which receives around £28m a year from the public purse and is therefore publicly accountable - continuously refused to confirm who the accounting officer currently is.

The body also refused to explain why the information would not be provided to the public.

Ms McKeown has been "on leave" for a number of weeks.

The only comment Sport NI would make is that she "has not left her post".

However, the Belfast Telegraph has learnt that six grievances have been lodged against the mother-of-two over her "style of management".

A source close to Sport NI revealed that the complaints have come from administration grades right through to senior level. The source also said that Ms McKeown has herself lodged a grievance.

According to the source, the first grievance was lodged around October or November last year. However, he said that Ms McKeown was only "asked to take paid leave" in recent weeks.

Ms McKeown yesterday did not respond to any calls from the Belfast Telegraph. Earlier in the week she would only say: "I am on leave. I remain in my post."

Stormont's Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee yesterday agreed to write to the department "for clarification on the situation and how Sport NI are currently functioning at the top".

Committee members have said they are deeply concerned by Sport NI's silence.

"I intend to find out what the situation is. As long as there is no interference with ongoing investigations, all matters should be made as public as possible," said DUP MLA David Hilditch.

He added: "There should be no secrecy. As a public body in receipt of public money, Sport NI must be accountable and transparent. I am very concerned at Sport NI's refusal to share any information. I intend to pursue this as a matter of importance." Committee member Dominic Bradley said: "The public most definitely has a right to know what is going on, as long as that information does not infringe upon any ongoing investigations. As a publicly funded body, Sport NI has no right to erect a wall of silence around what is going on internally.

The SDLP man added: "We have a right to know who is currently in charge at Sport NI and if there are any ongoing issues. I was at a meeting at Sport NI a few weeks ago and Ms McKeown was absent. How long is she going to be absent for?"

Ms McKeown is the first woman to become CEO of the public body for the development of sport in Northern Ireland.

She joined 18 months ago after leaving her job as chief executive of the Consumer Council.

The Co Armagh woman succeeded Nick Harkness, who had served in an acting capacity after the resignation of Eamonn McCartan.

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