Belfast Telegraph

Fury of ex-NI Events bosses facing boardroom ban bid

Fury of top public figures facing legal action to stop them acting as company directors

By Adrian Rutherford and Alan Erwin

Some of Northern Ireland's top public figures are facing legal action to stop them acting as company directors over their role in the collapse of a high-profile quango.

A High Court bid to disqualify 11 former board members of the NI Events Company (NIEC) opened yesterday.

It follows a number of damning reports into the running of the publicly funded body.

The NIEC, which brought the stars of showbusiness to Northern Ireland, folded in 2007 with debts of £1.6m.

Earlier this year, an investigation by Stormont's spending watchdog uncovered an "appalling level of mismanagement and impropriety" by senior officials.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was also heavily critical of the NIEC's board, claiming that it failed to challenge bad practice and lacked basic common sense.

Yesterday, the Department for the Economy launched disqualification proceedings against 11 former directors at the High Court in Belfast. They include:

- Gerry Lennon, the current chief executive of Visit Belfast;

- Jim Rodgers, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast;

- Alan Clarke, the former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board;

- Jim Clarke, the current chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools;

- Paul McWilliams, the former chairman of the Royal Group of Hospitals;

- Bill White, the managing director of polling firm LucidTalk;

- Mervyn Elder, a former director at Belfast City Council;

- Jasper Perry, the former chief executive of the NIEC;

- Victor Haslett, a former director of Bangor Football Club.

The other two are Catherine Williamson, who has links to the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland, and Aideen Corr.

However, there was anger last night from some of those at the centre of the case.

Several of the people facing proceedings claimed they were being made scapegoats to deflect attention from civil servants who failed to provide proper scrutiny.

Mr Rodgers, a long-serving Ulster Unionist councillor and the current High Sheriff of Belfast, said he had been hung out to dry.

"All of us are absolutely horrified and totally devastated that this should be happening," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

The NIEC was set up to boost Northern Ireland's profile around the world.

In its early years, it subsidised showpiece gigs at Stormont by artists including Pavarotti, Rod Stewart and Elton John. A motocross event in Moneyglass in 2007 was also organised by the events company.

However, it went bust in 2007, leaving the taxpayer to underwrite debts of £1.6m.

Separate reports by the Audit Office and the PAC criticised the oversight provided by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), the NIEC's sponsoring body.

The PAC accused DCAL of being "asleep at the wheel" and of ignoring warnings of the looming crisis. It also said that the NIEC's board provided no challenges, leadership or direction and lacked basic common sense.

Earlier this year, the organisation's former chief executive, Janice McAleese, was banned from acting as a company director for 14 years.

Michael Humphreys QC, representing the Department for the Economy, told the court some of the respondents have indicated they plan to contest the proceedings. Others were said to be considering whether to give undertakings in connection with possible disqualifications. Following a brief hearing, the case was adjourned until November.

Mr Rodgers told this newspaper that he was aghast at the court action.

He said he took on the role - which was unpaid - to provide a service to the community and that the 11 people facing court action were being "scapegoated".

"We audited reports, we had accountability meetings with senior officials in DCAL and nobody at any time pointed out to us that things were not going correctly or properly," he added.

"We didn't mis-spend or take any money out of the company, and I think we are basically being made scapegoats."

Bill White, meanwhile, said he was "extremely annoyed". "It was a voluntary board with no remuneration - it actually cost me money to go on it," he added.

"I am extremely angered about it. I put my advice and guidance in free of charge as a gesture to help events in Northern Ireland."

Solicitors for two other ex-board members hit out at the action. Michael Wilson, who is representing Alan Clarke, claimed the department was targeting people who were "delivered a hospital pass" with their unpaid roles in the Events Company.

"There's an inequality in bringing a civil prosecution against the directors of the company while there's no sanction for civil servants whose beast this was, and who had wholly inadequate oversight," he said.

John Gordon, lawyer for Jim Clarke, added: "Our concern is that these people are basically scapegoats, because the Government is deflecting from its own inadequacies and failures."

Belfast Telegraph


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