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Call for Northern Ireland Arts Council chief to quit following contract row


Conor Shields of ArtMattersNI

Conor Shields of ArtMattersNI

ACNI chairman John Edmund

ACNI chairman John Edmund

Conor Shields of ArtMattersNI

The chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) is facing calls to resign for accepting a contract worth £18,000 from a client of the agency he presides over.

ACNI's position has been described as "wholly untenable" after he conceded there is a conflict of interest concerning his two-month employment stint with the Nerve Centre.

The admission has provoked stinging criticism from throughout the arts sector.

In an article for today's Belfast Telegraph, Conor Shields of the advocacy group ArtMattersNI said it is "ironic" that the same man who has chastised organisations for their dependency on public funding and who defended savage cuts has secured public funding himself.

"Surely now, having seen time and again, the way this current chair engages with his role and the sector, his position is wholly untenable," he said.

The strong words come after it was revealed Mr Edmund had won an £18,000 contract for conducting a "scoping exercise" for the Nerve Centre - a creative media arts centre in Londonderry - following a competitive tendering process.

The marketing veteran only disclosed details of the venture on the Arts Council's register of interests more than three weeks after he took up the post.

"A conflict of interest exists in that the Arts Council is a minor funder of the Nerve Centre," he said last week.

"I have declared that conflict and will not be part of any discussion that involves the Nerve Centre for one year after the conclusion of this assignment. This is standard protocol."

But Mr Shields said the amount of ACNI funding a group receives isn't relevant to whether or not a conflict of interest exists.

He said that ArtMattersNI "would question whether the degree of funding should be a consideration at all" as "it either isn't or... it is in fact a conflict of interest".

The campaigner welcomed Mr Edmund's commitment to exclude himself from any discussions involving the Nerve Centre for one year after the conclusion of the project, but said serious questions remain unanswered - including whether or not correct protocol was followed.

"In addition to protecting the probity of individuals in public service, conflict of interest management is normally devised to protect those organisations in receipt or making application for public subvention," Mr Shields said.

Mr Shields also questioned if Mr Edmund - who has already survived two votes of no confidence - ignored existing rules by competing for the contract from an Arts Council client in the first place.

He said his two roles seem "difficult to reconcile".

"Conflict of interest polices and procedures are there to protect all of us," Mr Shields added.

"They should mean that we will not find ourselves compromised by inappropriate approaches, or worried about the consequences of making or refusing payments".

The campaigner also disputed the department's claim that a number of Arts Council board members have accepted work with organisations in receipt of agency funding.

Mr Shields said that the only other individual in a paid position with a client organisation is a voluntary board member.

The Arts Council had not responded to a request for comment by time of going to press last night.

Belfast Telegraph