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Sport NI's big plan to move forward from 'challenging and sad time'

By Steven Beacom

The Chairman of Sport NI has spoken for the first time about the problems and controversies which have beset the organisation this year and outlined his vision for the future of the public body.

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Brian Henning revealed the intention of Sport NI to move forward and deliver for sport in Northern Ireland... and to that end they are launching their Corporate Plan for the next five years.

The document sets out Sport NI's key priorities and strategic objectives from now until 2020 which major on increasing and supporting the number of people adopting and sustaining a sporting lifestyle, enabling more people to develop and reach their sporting goals through a structured environment and to help more Northern Ireland athletes win at the highest level.

The message is to 'Enjoy, Engage and Excel'.

It is a positive blueprint based on projections that Sport NI will have resources of £100.3 million during the period between 2015 and 2020 and a far cry from the negative headlines that the organisation faced in recent months.

In May, it was revealed that Sport NI Chief Executive Ms McKeown had been suspended from her post, due to 'leadership issues'. It is understood a number of grievance cases were made against her.

An independent investigator has been appointed by Sport NI to look into those claims.

In June, the plot thickened when NINE of Sport NI's 14 board members resigned from their positions ahead of a meeting with Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, leaving just five people, including Chairman Henning, on the board.

None of the nine have stated why they stepped down, though there is a sense they were fearful of the growing media interest in events at Sport NI, amid concerns about the working practices at the organisation, and a thought process that they were in for a rough ride from the Minister.

Following discussions with Henning, Ni Chuilin, in her role as Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, sent three civil servants in to effectively take control of Sport NI. They are headed by senior official Arthur Scott, who has become interim Chief Executive in the absence of Ms McKeown.

All this has happened with Sport NI coming to terms with savage government funding cuts, impacting on some of the country's top sporting heroes such as Olympic medal winning boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, Winter Paralympics gold medal winner Kelly Gallagher and Rio 2016 bound sailors Matthew McGovern and Ryan Seaton.

Sport NI Chairman Henning admits it has been a 'challenging' period but insists that the organisation is now getting back on track.

"We have been successful in stabilising the organisation which was my main objective when we had the media furore and people were camped outside Sport NI," said Henning.

"We were in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons and I wanted to move on from that and to protect our staff. We have 148 staff who were feeling pretty bruised."

On the suspension of Chief Executive McKeown, Henning pointed out: "It hasn't been easy for the organisation, particularly as the situation has been going on for a lengthy period of time. That is the reason why we have an interim Chief Executive here. We are all aware that it is a situation that will need to be resolved.

"It has been challenging from a personal point of view and I must pay tribute to my Vice-Chairman Ian McAvoy, who has been outstanding."

On the nine board members leaving, Henning stated: "I couldn't criticise any of my board members for the work they did. We had a good balance and I would like to think my style of chairmanship gave everyone a voice.

"It was with great sadness that we lost so many board members and when I go into the boardroom I think about them and the input that we have lost.

"I spoke to all the board members before they resigned and do not wish to betray any confidences but I know they thought long and hard about their decisions."

Henning added: "We asked for the Minister's support and she gave us what we wanted. I am grateful to the Department for making available Arthur Scott and two other key members of staff. They are quality people and their approach to all the issues here has been very professional.

"To that point our organisation had taken a number of blows, but now we are at a point where we are back doing our work and the best we can for sport in Northern Ireland.

"The ongoing issues will be investigated thoroughly and whatever recommendations come out of that will be discussed with the Department, Minister and the board and we will agree a way forward.

"I have spoken to all the staff since and said to them we now have a great opportunity to look at everything we do and move forward.

"Since I came in in 2012, I have been constantly impressed by the quality of people and the quality of work and their passion for sport and we are eternally grateful for that and we want to support those people.

"We are in a better place than where we were. There are still issues to be resolved but hopefully with structures in place and support we have from the Department, albeit interim support, we can get through this."

New Sport NI board members should come in in December. The plan is to have between eight and 10 with a geographical and gender spread who have a passion for sport and understand the impact it has.

There are also plans, with potentially more cuts from Stormont, for Sport NI to assess how they could obtain funding from elsewhere, possibly the European Union, and a real desire to get more women involved in sport.

There is also a strong commitment to work with the GAA in order to finally see the new Casement Park built with all safety requirements met.

Sport NI believe that the launch of their Corporate Plan for the next five years can help restore any of the lost public confidence.

"I believe our Corporate Plan will work and benefit sport in Northern Ireland," said Henning.

"We have produced it following province-wide consultation. It demonstrates our commitment to striving for excellence at all levels of sport.

"At the end of next year my term as Chairman ends and I want to leave an organisation that is singing at the top of its voice and respected across the board, doing the right thing for sport in Northern Ireland."

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