Northern Ireland

Five Lough Neagh Rescue crew members expelled in row

Lough Neagh lifeboat

Five crew members have been expelled from the Lough Neagh Rescue charity by the Charity Commission amid a dispute which has split the organisation.

This is the first case of its kind in Northern Ireland in which members of a charity have been removed by the commission.

It follows what has been described as a "protracted and emotive" dispute between members of the lifeboat charity.

Lough Neagh Rescue operates a 24-hour volunteer lifeboat service from two stations on the lough shore - one at Ardboe in County Tyrone, and the other from Kinnego Marina near Lurgan, County Armagh.

It has continued to provide a life-saving service on the lough in spite of the dispute, and answered more than 20 distress calls last year alone.

The interim findings of an initial inquiry carried out by the charity watchdog, seen by BBC News, revealed that at the height of the dispute, locks were changed at one of the lifeboat stations and charity funds were frozen in a bank account for about a year.

The group of five crew members who have been removed initially went to the Charity Commission and made a series of allegations about how the charity was being run.

However, when the allegations the group made were considered to be unfounded by the commission, it turned its investigative powers upon them.

'Serious risk'

In its interim findings, the watchdog said: "Information has also been forthcoming from other sources which contradicts and calls into question the motivation of some of those who raised the initial concerns, and they now appear to be obstructing and frustrating the commission's investigation."

Image caption Lough Neagh Rescue operates a 24-hour volunteer lifeboat service

The commission alleged the actions of the group were posing "a serious risk to the charity, its reputation and beneficiaries".

The five crew members who have been told to step aside deny any wrongdoing, and intend appealing the decision at a tribunal.

One of the ousted members, Gregory Burke, said: "I am confident they (the tribunal) will find the commission's allegations have absolutely no grounds in fact.

"We approached the Charity Commission in the first place for their help. The charity has spent quite a bit of money over the years training us up to a certain standard, and we would like to get back to what we do best - serving the community.

"If the charity tribunal finds that there is something in the commission's allegations, I will happily walk away."

According to the commission's findings, the allegations the group made against the others in the charity were unsubstantiated.

'Misconduct'

These included a claim that "electricity bills (at the Ardboe station) were three to four times higher than usual, and this was evidence of misconduct by members of the charity".

But the watchdog said this was not the case. "After investigation this allegation is not upheld," the commission said.

It appears the dispute began after plans were unveiled for another lifeboat station at Antrim. This led to allegations that the group intended to form a breakaway faction and pass on assets of the charity to others.

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Media captionThe ousted crew members had initially contacted the Charity Commission

In its interim findings, the commission said: "There is without doubt evidence of misconduct on the part of individuals whose motivation appears to be have been to divert assets and funding to other bodies, to obstruct the efficiency ... and adversely affect the reputation of Lough Neagh Rescue Ltd, and indeed to close the charity completely."

In another development, a former chairman of the charity, Trevor McKee, has been removed as a trustee by the commission.

It is understood this is the first time this has happened in Northern Ireland. Mr McKee denies any wrongdoing, and is appealing against his removal.

"We came to the commission 18 months ago with concerns we had about the charity - we asked for help," he said.

"They promised a fair investigation but unfortunately they have not delivered on that. We are standing up for the rights of volunteers who have given collectively over 120 years service to our own community.

"The Charity Commission have tried to form an outcome which we believe is unjust.

"Whether that damages the charity or not remains to be seen, but probably it would be more damaging to the charity if we were to let something like this slide by, shrug our shoulders and walk away. We are not prepared to do that."

The commission confirmed it had launched a full "statutory inquiry" into the Lough Neagh Rescue, adding that it was not in a position to comment further.

In February 2011, the commission gained powers for the first time to investigate charities within Northern Ireland

Lifesaving work

Lough Neagh Rescue declined to be interviewed but said the ongoing inquiry was into the "past workings " of the charity.

In a statement it added: "Lough Neagh Rescue is continuing to work with the Charities Commission in relation to this matter, and in the interests of fairness to all those involved, would not like to comment further as it may damage the ongoing appeals process."

It is understood the LNR has recently received £123,000 from an organisation called Generating Rural Opportunities Within South Antrim (GROW) towards establishing a lifeboat station near the Antrim Forum.

When built, this will be the charity's third lifeboat facility on the lough.

The charity is funded by a number of sources, including many of the district councils whose boundaries border the lough.

It said: "In return for the donations received, the charity has responded to 21 callouts during 2013, which led to the rescue of 45 lives, whilst 18 additional people were also assisted by crew."

Throughout the dispute, the mainstream charity has kept up its lifesaving work on the lough.

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