Belfast Telegraph

Sport NI turmoil leaves '£250k legal bill' for staff complaints

By Jim McDowell

Sport NI has been hit with a bill of up to a quarter of a million pounds over claims of bullying, harassment and the pursuit of whistleblowers in the taxpayer-funded organisation.

Ironically, it is again a whistleblower who has made the claim that the main sports support agency in Northern Ireland has spent up to £250,000 on legal and other professional fees over the workplace unrest claims at its Malone Road HQ in Belfast.

It has led to calls for an independent review into why the money was paid out of the public purse.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt also said such a review should blueprint how a mediation process could be set up to prevent a further drain on taxpayers' money.

Sport NI gets a government grant of £30m a year.

The new whistleblower said: "Taking a quarter of a million from that is quite a considerable chunk out of the annual budget. And don't forget, that is money that is supposed to help sport grow from the grassroots level up."

Some of the legal and professional fees were paid for special probes into the shock dismissal of Sport NI chief executive officer Antoinette McKeown.

She was reinstated as CEO a month ago after being dramatically sacked, without being told - she learned of it from the Press - in November last year.

An estimated seven cases concerning alleged maltreatment were taken by staff at the sports oversight agency. Most of those are believed to have been processed, and settled with, in some instances, considerable sums in compensation being paid. But it is understood that at least one major case is still outstanding.

And that could cost tens of thousands of pounds more in legal and other fees.

According to the whistleblower, that case may end up in the High Court.

However, Sport NI is refusing to divulge how many harassment/bullying charges were levelled by members of staff: how many cases are still 'live': and how many proved successful.

The Belfast Telegraph put nine detailed questions to Sport NI concerning the costly complaints saga which has racked the organisation and resulted in a raft of senior and highly-qualified staff departing.

However, the organisation responded: "Sport NI is unable to comment on personnel matters."

That is in stark contrast to, and a contradiction of, a statement issued to this newspaper on November 24 last year.

Then, Sport NI had no hesitation in issuing a statement announcing the sacking of Antoinette McKeown.

That statement, used as part of the front page story, read: "Following a disciplinary process, the CEO, Antoinette McKeown, has been dismissed, subject to appeal."

This newspaper is aware that 'perplexed' and 'angry' staff who had their complaints upheld, even on appeal, say they are being 'left in limbo' about what, if any, disciplinary action was taken, or is being contemplated, against anyone found guilty of bullying, harassment or hounding whistleblowers.

Their concerns were confirmed by one Sport NI Malone HQ insider who revealed: "The attitude in here is that any complaint processes which are concluded are just that: over. The official line is that there is no policy provision for further review."

Mr Nesbitt has called for an independent review into the whole Sport NI complaints saga, which at one stage ended up on the floor at Stormont with bullying and harassment allegations being put into the public domain at a special Assembly Committee hearing.

"What is needed here is an independent review of what has happened at Sport NI," he said.

"The result should be a dispute-resolving mechanism being put in place to prevent the taxpayer forking out this kind of money in the future.

"The independent review should result in a mediation process being put in place to address and resolve these matters before they get to this serious Sport NI stage."

Sport NI was also under the spotlight a fortnight ago when top sporting bodies accused it of excluding them from a multi-million pound Lottery grant scheme.

Soccer, rugby, GAA and cricket hit out after missing out on the £21m Lottery handout.

The handling of that is under review by the SportNI Board.

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