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Serious questions and answers needed about Sport NI

By Nelson McCausland

Published 09/07/2015

Antoinette McKeown
Antoinette McKeown

The resignations of nine members of the Sport NI board have sent shock waves through that organisation and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), which is headed by Sinn Fein minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

I am writing this column in a personal capacity, but even as chair of the culture, arts and leisure (CAL) committee, I simply don't understand what is happening within Caral Ni Chuilin's department.

Like many others, I have to ask: "What is going on?"

As I write this, the minister is due to meet the five remaining board members and she is due to come before the CAL committee, so it may become clearer, but it is a remarkable story.

Sport NI is an arm's-length body of DCAL and has an important role for sport in Northern Ireland. There should be 14 board members in the organisation, but two-thirds of them resigned on Monday shortly before a meeting with Ms Ni Chuilin. That is surely unprecedented.

To lose two-thirds of a board at one time says that there is something seriously wrong somewhere. When two-thirds of the members of any board resign on one day, before a meeting with a minister, there are clearly questions to be asked and answered.

The process to recruit and appoint new board members will take some months and, in the meantime, the organisation has a much-depleted board.

The quorum for board meetings is "50% of current membership rounded up", which with five remaining members would be three, so decisions could, in theory, be taken with just three members present.

Moreover, this has not happened in isolation. It has happened against a complex background of other difficulties within the Sinn Fein minister's department.

On April 30 Paul Scott, the principal safety expert in Sport NI, appeared before the CAL committee at Stormont and expressed concerns about emergency exiting from the proposed Casement Park stadium.

He also said: "I and Sport NI have received undue pressure from the GAA and from DCAL about my view of the safety of the Casement Park plan."

Subsequently, the CAL committee initiated an inquiry into the redevelopment of Casement Park, with a focus on emergency exiting and safety.

Indeed, today the committee members will receive evidence from members of the safety technical group, which was set up by DCAL to provide advice on safety issues at the three new stadiums - Kingspan (Ravenhill), Windsor Park and Casement Park.

Around the same time Caral Ni Chuilin commissioned an independent project assessment review of the stadiums programme and an independent investigation into accusations of bullying and harassment by DCAL officials.

Meanwhile, there have clearly been problems within Sport NI. Very little has been said publicly, but we know that its chief executive Antoinette McKeown was suspended back in May.

We also know that another investigation has been ongoing as regards serious internal issues in Sport NI.

Then, last Friday afternoon, Caral Ni Chuilin announced that "the head of internal audit had completed a report setting out a range of serious allegations and concerns in relation to the leadership, management and the overall culture within Sport NI".

She said this did not relate to the allegations made by Paul Scott, so what is it about?

She also said that: "Given the ongoing challenges in Sport NI, I am taking steps to intervene directly to support both staff and the remaining board members."

That raises more questions. Were the former board members aware of this "ministerial intervention" before they resigned, was that a factor in or reason for their resignations, why did they resign and when does ministerial intervention become ministerial interference?

So, with an Assembly committee inquiry, an independent investigation, a project review, a report about "serious allegations", a suspension and nine resignations, what is happening?

Furthermore, are all of these issues completely separate? Or are there connections between some, or all, of them?

Belfast Telegraph

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