Belfast Telegraph

'Sacked' Sport NI chief McKeown returns after misconduct charges are dismissed

 

By Claire McNeilly

Antoinette McKeown will be back working at Sport NI on Monday - just nine months after she was dramatically removed from her post as chief executive of the organisation.

Ms McKeown, an ex-CEO of the Consumer Council, had been suspended on full pay in March 2015 after gross misconduct charges were levelled against her.

But those allegations were overturned on appeal last month and this newspaper understands that she'll be back at the House of Sport on Belfast's Upper Malone Road in two days' time.

During a phone call yesterday, a Sport NI employee told the Belfast Telegraph that Ms McKeown "will be in on Monday", although it remains unclear what position she will occupy.

Last night Ms McKeown confirmed she was returning but declined to comment further.

She told this newspaper: "There will be something issued next week but I'm not going to comment in the interim."

Ms McKeown was appointed as the first female head of the publicly-funded sporting body in 2013 but her tenure came to a sudden end two years later amid a blaze of publicity.

When an independent appeals panel voted to dismiss Ms McKeown last November, she called it a "shocking decision" and immediately launched an appeal.

Seven months later, a separate independent appeals panel overturned the gross misconduct charges, citing flaws with the previous disciplinary process.

Ms McKeown's time as head of Sport NI was marred by a litany of rows and a number of staff made accusations of harassment and bullying in the workplace.

She also faced a barrage of questions, not least from politicians at Stormont, concerning safety issues over the multi-million pound development of Casement Park.

Enquiries were pursued by MLAs when safety concerns were first revealed to the then Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

There was also a bitter dispute which spanned the whole way from Sport NI's headquarters to Stormont involving the whistleblower on the Casement safety issues, Paul Scott.

A Sport NI employee, he very publicly aired accusations of harassment and bullying at an Assembly committee meeting.

Both Mr Scott and Ms McKeown were suspended from their jobs.

Last October, Mr Scott, who was chairman of the safety technical group charged with monitoring the Casement Park development, won an industrial tribunal case that was taken against Sport NI.

The day before the case was due to be heard, it was settled in Mr Scott's favour and on his terms.

In an interview with Sunday Life in November, Ms McKeown (50) spoke out about what she called the "harrowing" experience of her short time in charge of the sporting body.

She said her treatment had been "cruel, vicious and inhumane".

"I was brought into Sport NI with a very clear remit from the board to lead change, manage under-performance at a senior level and to restore public accountability, which had long been lost," she added.

"I have been sacked for doing the job I was brought in to do."

At the time, she claimed that Sport NI was not fit for purpose, had refused to return her personal diaries containing sensitive information and was mismanaging their annual public funding of £30m.

"I heard harrowing accounts from staff about how they were treated, in particular junior and vulnerable staff," she said.

"I felt so powerless as a new CEO, because the culture of fear was so strong that no one wanted to formalise the complaint and I couldn't take it forward without a formal complaint in the interests of fairness."

Ms McKeown said she was repeatedly ignored and asked to do tasks that were of no real benefit for the organisation at the time.

"I played by the rules, but I was working with people who weren't even playing on the same pitch," she said.

"The Department (of Culture, Arts and Leisure) knew that Sport NI was dysfunctional. I was advised of that, and sporting bodies who worked with Sport NI had concerns, as did staff."

In the interview, Ms McKeown described the ordeal as "20 months of torture".

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