Northern Ireland Arts Council hief accepts £18k contract is conflict of interest
The chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has conceded there is a conflict of interest after he was criticised for accepting an £18,000 contract from an organisation in receipt of funding from the agency he leads.
John Edmund is undertaking a two-month stint with the Nerve Centre in Londonderry.
Last night he told this newspaper: "A conflict of interest exists in that the Arts Council is a minor funder of the Nerve Centre.
"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.
"I would point out again that the assignment is related to technical skills and workforce recruitment/future manpower requirements for such skills."
The marketing veteran, who has more than 30 years' experience, said he accepted the role at the creative media arts centre to carry out a "scoping exercise" following a competitive tendering process.
But it led to advocacy group ArtMattersNI questioning the appropriateness of the move.
The group's Conor Shields said: "Whilst many Arts Council board members have made various declarations, is it appropriate for the chairperson to work for an organisation in direct receipt of annual funding from the Arts Council?" Despite Mr Edmund's statement, the Department for Communities said that, based on information obtained from Mr Edmund at a meeting with an official on April 26, no conflict of interest existed.
"The funding for this particular assignment had been provided by another agency," it said.
It named several other Arts Council members who had made similar declarations of interest relating to work with organisations in receipt of Arts Council funding.
Mr Edmund's "workforce planning for NI Screen industries" assignment will end on June 1.
The Arts Council said it only became aware of details of the work on April 25, more than three weeks after its commencement on April 1.
"We believe the value of the tendered contract is £18,000," it said.
"The council takes appropriate steps to ensure proper governance and the avoidance of such conflicts where possible, but the onus remains with individuals to safeguard their own probity in public service."
It is understood the documents relating to the tender would have been submitted no later than mid-March.
Asked if the late declaration removed any conflict of interest, the Arts Council referred to the organisation's internal policy, which warns that any concealment, whether intentional or through ignorance, creates "at best a risk of allegations or perceptions of misconduct" and could result in disciplinary action or litigation against the organisation.
It also stressed the importance of identifying issues early to ensure risks were managed.
But the DUP-appointed chairman, who stood down as chair of the Arts Council-funded Grand Opera House in January 2017 just weeks after assuming the role in order to take up his new post, insisted he'd done nothing wrong.
"I declared the conflict at the first board meeting after the assignment was commissioned," Mr Edmund said.
"My client is the Nerve Centre, which is very much an independent organisation."
The Arts Council board passed two votes of no confidence in Mr Edmund at the end of 2017 and staged a series of walkouts from turbulent meetings.
However, he has so far resisted calls to quit.