Head of Sport NI takes case for unfair dismissal

Appeal upheld Antoinette McKeown’s challenge to seven grounds used to justify her firing

Antoinette McKeown: Agreement on compensation is being blocked. Photograph: Colm O’Reilly/Sunday Life

Antoinette McKeown: Agreement on compensation is being blocked. Photograph: Colm O’Reilly/Sunday Life

 

Sport Northern Ireland’s chief executive, Antoinette McKeown, is taking legal action against her employers for unfair dismissal and sex and religious discrimination, even though she remains in her job.

Ms McKeown was suspended in 2014 and sacked two years later for gross misconduct, before she was reinstated last September following the findings of an appeal, which upheld her challenge to each of the seven grounds used to justify her firing.

Even though she is now back in her post, Ms McKeown is taking a case, due to be heard next month at the Fair Employment Tribunal, against Sport Northern Ireland, the leading public body for the development of sport in the North, in what is thought to be an unprecedented action by a still-serving chief executive.

Sport Northern Ireland immediately reinstated her after the appeal decision, but an agreement on compensation for her ordeal and a public apology, which she is said to be insisting on, is being blocked.

It is understood that differences of opinion between Sport Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities, exacerbated by the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland because of the absence of the Assembly and the Stormont Executive, lay behind the log-jam.

In documents seen by The Irish Times, officials at the North’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) – the predecessor to the Department for Communities – warned in 2016 that there was “no compelling case” to take disciplinary action against her.

If it continued, “it could leave Sport NI at risk of an allegation of discrimination against the CEO”, the officials warned, shortly before the department was superseded by Department for Communities.

‘Abuse of power’

Former assistant secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Peter Bunting, who represented Ms McKeown during her successful appeal, said it was a “shocking abuse of power that a woman, cleared of all wrong-doing and found to be unfairly dismissed, is being forced into a tribunal at a reckless cost to the taxpayer”.

“Accountability for public money must be returned to NI and those responsible for the appalling pursuit of a female CEO should be held to account,” he said.

“Yet public officials appear to be insisting on spending more taxpayer money to prolong the ordeal of the very person subjected to an appalling level of victimisation,” he told The Irish Times.

Ms McKeown became the first ever woman chief executive of the body in July 2014. She took a grievance procedure against the organisation’s chairman, Brian Henning, after less than four months in the post, claiming that she had been undermined. Mr Henning, for his part, has insisted he had no further part to play in Ms McKeown’s management as soon as this grievance was lodged.

Over the following four months, Sports Northern Ireland officials took seven grievance procedures or protected disclosure orders against Ms McKeown. This prompted the board of Sports Northern Ireland to launch an investigation. She was suspended in March 2015 while it was carried out.

Later, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure sent in senior civil servants to run the body. In a survey ordered by the officials, staff, helped by a confidential telephone hotline, reported widespread disillusionment with senior management.

More than a third of the organisation’s 140 staff claimed that they had witnessed or been subjected to bullying, harassment and victimisation.

‘Lack of evidence’

Reviewing the misconduct charges levelled against Ms McKeown, the senior civil servants found that “there appeared to be a lack of evidence that a thorough investigation had been carried out in coming to the charges”, the final report says.

In a draft report, the civil servants’ team – known as the Interim Executive Leadership Executive Team (IELT) – found that each of the seven charges of misconduct laid against Ms McKeown had serious flaws.

Ms McKeown, for example, had been accused of having failed to protect two employees who had been criticised for warning that the GAA’s refurbished Casement Park stadium in west Belfast could not be evacuated safely.

Here, the IELT completely exonerated Ms McKeown: “The CEO has, in the IELT’s view, been unfairly made the corporate scapegoat for this failure,” says the document, seen by The Irish Times.

The IELT weighed up all seven cases and reported that there was “no evidence that the facts were considered” when suspending her.

“The IELT review has probed the issues around which the charges have been based further and, in our view, there is not a compelling case for charges or the gravity afforded them,” the draft report says.

Despite the concerns expressed by its own civil servants, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure officials and government lawyers gave the go-ahead for the disciplinary hearings against Ms McKeown to continue. She was dismissed in November 2016 – 20 months after she was suspended.

In March 2015, exasperated by events at Sport NI, the then Sinn Féin DCAL minister Carál Ní Chuilín had summoned Mr Henning and his vice-chairman Ian McAvoy and gave them an ultimatum: resign or be fired. They quit the next day.

Ms McKeown appealed her sacking. Last June, an appeal panel, which included former assistant chief constable of the PSNI Alistair Finlay, upheld Ms McKeown’s appeal against all seven charges of gross misconduct.

Lack of protection

The panel report said there had been a “co-ordinated attempt” to get rid of Ms McKeown and that the leadership investigation had been a “Trojan horse to investigate the appellant without proper formality and protection of due process”.

The gross misconduct findings were “unsafe”, it found, adding that the Sport NI board had shown “an unreasonable determination to pursue” Ms McKeown. Her dismissal had been unfair and the entire process she faced was “flawed”, it added.

In emails and other documents seen by the appeal panel, Ms McKeown is described as “tootsie” and a “bitch”. One email quotes a senior figure telling other officials they needed to “sort AMcK out as soon as possible”.

In one email to Mr Henning, which was not answered, Mr McAvoy wrote: “AMcK was in Derry on Sat at the [Sinn Féin] ardfheis, surprise, surprise.” One witness told the appeal panel a senior official allegedly set fire to computer discs removed from the IT room and taken off-site shortly after Ms McKeown was suspended. Another tells how laptops and mobile phones were alleged dumped in a skip.

Faced with the strength of the appeal panel report, the new chairman of Sport NI , George Lucas, accepted its findings immediately and reinstated Ms McKeown. She returned to work last July.

Despite the acceptance of the findings, agreement on a compensation and apology package has stalled, and without a functioning elected government and political system to bring some focus, the deadlock is unlikely to be broken.

Ms McKeown is believed to be insisting on a public apology. Sport NI told The Irish Times it was unable to comment on personnel matters. Mr Henning has questioned why he was not interviewed by the appeal panel and maintained he was removed from the processes which led to Ms McKeown’s suspension and sacking. Mr McAvoy declined to comment.