Belfast Telegraph

Sacked Sport NI chief McKeown vows to expose 'months of torture' at organisation

By Ali Gordon

The sacked CEO of Sport NI has lifted the lid on her “harrowing” time at the publicly-funded organisation.

Antoinette McKeown was the first female boss of Sport NI when she was appointed in 2013, but she was suspended just 18 months into the job and subsequently fired.

She claims:

  •  Sport NI is mismanaging the £30million of taxpayers’ money it receives each year;
  •  The organisation has refused to return her personal diaries;
  •  Sport NI is not fit for purpose;
  •  She’s preparing to go to an employment tribunal to tell “everything that is wrong with Sport NI”.

A former CEO of the Northern Ireland Consumer Council, McKeown’s short time at Sport NI was marred by a series of rows, particularly regarding the safety of GAA stadium Casement Park, and accusations of harassment and bullying in the workplace.

But defiant McKeown says she was only doing her job.

“I’m no longer an employee and I am going to fight for what is right,” the 50-year-old told Sunday Life.

“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.

“I have been sacked for doing the job I was brought in to do.” McKeown was suspended on full pay last March after a number of grievances were lodged both by her and against her.

After presenting a damning report into the Sport NI funded Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, she was put on gardening leave the week she was due to address a second investigation into serious mismanagement, alleged unequal treatment and potentially unlawful practices at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland.

“I am not just preparing an appeal to the same board that sacked me, I am preparing to go to tribunal and expose everything that’s so wrong with Sport NI,” she said.

“I’ve endured 20 months of torture made worse by the total absence of a duty of care from Sport NI.

“The treatment of me has in my view been cruel, vicious and inhumane.

“It’s inconceivable that the Sport NI appointed panel which heard my case could have reached the decision to dismiss me.

“I presented irrefutable evidence and harrowing accounts from witnesses.”

Within one hour on the job, McKeown claims that she was called by the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to discuss a damning report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office on the mismanagement of public funds at St Colman’s in Newry with no brief.

“Immediately I was aware that DCAL knew there was something seriously flawed with this organisation,” she said. “This is an organisation that is in charge of major sporting projects, publicly funded to the tune of £30million a year.

“There was no project management, risk management, leadership or controls in place.

“Junior positions were in charge of making big decisions which cost the taxpayer huge amounts of money.

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

“No decent human being could have failed to have been troubled by what I heard and I was deeply affected by that.

“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 interest of fairness.”

Ms McKeown added: “I knew from my experience that the whole organisation needed a shake-up and I had the support of so many staff who were creative, passionate and really eager to be led.

“For the first time, staff were hearing encouragement from a CEO who told them they had a right to disagree and to challenge. Looking back now, it went from being an oppressive organisation to one that was open and staff didn’t know how to react.

“Staff who had been the ones creating this fear became deeply fearful of themselves.”

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

She added: “I played by the rules but I was working with people who weren’t even playing on the same pitch.”

According to Ms McKeown, the word ‘fear’ was used five times in a recent report on Sport NI, but had been ignored by management.

“I kept diaries of the  harrowing stories I had been told and noted every single meeting I had with staff, and locked it in my office.

“I have spent sleepless nights worrying about those diaries and the safety of staff as a result of what is contained in the diaries.

 “I’ve asked for them repeatedly and have had nothing returned.”

Ms McKeown added: “The Department knew that Sport NI was dysfunctional, I was advised of that, and sporting bodies who worked with Sport NI had concerns, as did staff.

“It saddens me, but Sport NI is not fit for purpose.

“Let’s not waste more money on an organisation that has refused to accept change or be publicly accountable.”

In a statement, Sport NI said: “Following a disciplinary process, the CEO, Antoinette McKeown has been dismissed, subject to Appeal.

“Sport NI are unable to make any further comment.”

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