Business

Directors claim they were 'scapegoats' as events company saga concludes

Elton John performed in Belfast in one of the earliest events ran by the Northern Ireland Events Company
Gary McDonald Business Editor

FORMER board members at the now defunct Northern Ireland Events Company (NIEC) have "reluctantly" accepted their fate after a six-year legal case into a financial scandal at the quango was formally concluded.

Twelve one-time directors of the body, which was set up to attract show business stars like Elton John to the north, have been handed board bans totalling 76 years for their misdemeanours.

But the individual board members - who include tourism chiefs, councillors and senior business and sporting figures - claim they have been made scapegoats for "the failings of government" and to deflect attention from civil servants who failed to provide proper scrutiny.

NIEC was set up by Stormont in 1997 to organise, support, encourage, facilitate or promote the holding, or staging, in Northern Ireland of events of a cultural, sporting, recreational, leisure or commercial nature.

It folded in 2007, leaving a £1.6 million debt that had to be settled by the taxpayer, and a six-year investigation costing £1.2 million has ultimately led to disqualification proceedings against board members.

A number of the board members are understood to have been personally out of pocket to the tune of up to £20,000 in challenging the case, which was brought by the Department for the Economy.

A joint statement from six of them said: "The sorry mess is a warning to anyone accepting an appointment to the board of a publicly-sponsored company that they run the risk of being scapegoats for the failings of government in similar circumstances."

Former chief executive of the company Janice McAleese, who now lives in Lancashire, quit her role just ahead of the major financial problems coming to light, and her conduct was described by the NI Audit Office as the worst ever by a public official.

She had previously accepted a disqualification undertaking for 14 years while her successor Jasper Perry (40) from Davenport in England was disqualified for eight years.

The Department accepted a disqualification undertaking for nine years from Mervyn Elder (73) from Belfast, a former director at Belfast City Council, while five-year bans went to the following nine ex-directors:

:: Gerry Lennon (53) from Moira, the current chief executive of Visit Belfast;

:: Jim Rodgers (74) from Holywood, a former lord mayor of Belfast;

:: Alan Clarke (66) from Belfast, the former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board;

:: Jim Clarke (67), former chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools;

:: Paul McWilliams (80) from Templepatrick, a former chair of the Royal Group of Hospitals;

:: Bill White (62) from Belfast, managing director of polling firm LucidTalk;

:: Victor Haslett (78) now living in the Algarve, a former director of Bangor Football Club;

:: Catherine Williamson (52) from Belfast, a former chair of the Institute of Hospitality; and

:: Aideen Corr (64) from Derry, who held a number of roles promoting tourism in the north west.

The Department, which received an inspectors' report on the investigation in March 2014 and has been considering it ever since, said the misconduct by board members was not disputed.

It covered a range of failures around the directors' oversight and control and ensuring sufficient principles of corporate governance were in place.

Among them, the directors were said to have shared collective responsibility for failing to prevent former chief executive Janice McAleese from fabricating an overdraft facility for £200,000 without board knowledge.

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