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Sport NI told to get over internal issues and focus on job



Key role: Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown

Key role: Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown

Key role: Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown

Sport NI must avoid 'dangerous distractions' and 'internal problems' and focus on developing sport, encouraging grassroots participation and supporting elite athletes, according to Deirdre Hargey.

The Sports Minister is keen to work with Sport NI but it is clear she will be keeping a close eye on an organisation that has been hit by controversial issues in recent years.

In 2015, chief executive Antoinette McKeown was suspended by Sport NI due to 'leadership issues' and the following year was dismissed.

Following her dismissal, in an interview with the Sunday Life, Ms McKeown accused Sport NI of mismanaging the public money the organisation received each year and claimed that the body was "not fit for purpose".

Also in 2016, the chair and vice-chair of Sport NI, Brian Henning and Ian McAvoy, resigned in the wake of a critical report commissioned by Stormont, when Caral Ni Chuilin was Sports Minister.

In 2017, an independent appeals panel overturned charges of gross misconduct against Ms McKeown and she returned to work. The next year, she settled a fair employment dispute with Sport NI.

George Lucas is now the chair with McKeown the chief executive. Hargey has met with both since taking over the role of Minister for Communities, of which sport is a key element.

Hargey said: "Sport NI is one of our arm's-length bodies. There have been challenges within Sport NI around governance, leadership and financial management and there has been a lot of work done with the Audit Office reports over the last few years.

"My Department officials have gone in to play a supportive role with the chair and chief executive and there has been some progress.

"I'm not saying everything is resolved, there is still a good bit of work to be done. I do think there is a commitment that we have a sports body that concentrates on the sport and development of sport rather than always having to worry about internal problems.

"I will continue to try and play my role in that. I have met the chair (George Lucas) and Antoinette at the Sport Maker awards in Titanic, which was a brilliant event bringing together people from grassroots sports and recognising their contribution. That's the focus Sport NI should have.

"There are some issues to resolve in terms of outstanding accounts and, again, my officials are working with Sport NI to ensure that can happen.

"For arm's-length bodies more widely in the New Decade New Approach document there is a commitment to review. That is something that will be done centrally through the Executive Office and through OFM/DFM, but I will continue to work with Sport NI to ensure the purpose of why they were set up; to develop sport, encourage grassroots participation and looking at supporting our elite athletes will be the core theme rather than all of the distractions.

"Some of them I suppose have been dangerous distractions in terms of some of the issues raised. To have those resolved as quickly as possible is important, as is to concentrate on the initial aim of what they were set up to do."

Belfast Telegraph