The five crew members of Lough Neagh Rescue (LNR) who were suspended last year by the NI Charity Commission (NICC) – and reinstated on Friday after appeal – are calling on Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland to investigate the commission.
And they are taking legal advice after LNR called on their volunteers to reaffirm their membership, prior to last week’s five-day hearing before the Northern Irish Charity Tribunal. The five say, as they technically were not members, they could not take part in that exercise, adding that the commission “did not react to that situation, but had no compunction to banning us, unfairly as it turned out, from a service we loved and did so well”.
The NICC dropped its opposition to the appeal by lifeboat volunteers Greg Burke, Robert Orton, Michael Savage, Michael McGovern and Joseph Hughes. They were removed from the charity by the NICC in October after it opened a statutory inquiry because of concerns about its “historic administration and governance”.
It was the first time that the NI regulator had exercised its statutory power to remove members of a charity.
The five men prepared their own case. They were represented by window cleaner William Dugan, who took on the might of the NICC team which included a barrister, a solicitor and commissioners.
“It was real David versus Goliath stuff,” said Greg Burke. “But we had prepared our case with a 112-page document and a million words. It was obvious that we were wronged, and the NICC withdrew.”
He added, “We have not been restored as members because the charity decided, the week before our appeal, to ask volunteers to reaffirm their membership – but we couldn’t do that as we were technically banned.
“Instead of waiting for due process, they took away our ability to re-engage with the charity. We have been put through hell and our reputations tarnished over the past six months, but our reputations have now been fully restored and we feel we have been completely exonerated by the decision.”
He added that the five had contacted their MP, David Simpson of Upper Bann, and they hoped to meet with Mr McCausland to investigate the moves by the NICC “which proved wrong and fruitless in the end”.
And they are taking legal advice over the LNR group in the re-affirmation move. “We believe it stymied us from re-joining, but we are taking legal advice,” he said.
In a statement, the CCNI said the aim in launching an inquiry into the charity in the first place was to improve its governance so that it could operate effectively as a life-saving organisation.
“Since the orders to remove the members were issued, and subsequent to the actions of the commission, the charity has moved on,” the statement said. “The commission is now content with the governance of Lough Neagh Rescue and that the charity is in a better position to manage its membership internally.”
Mr Burke reacted, “The NICC acted outside its ambit. There was a lack of investigation here from start to finish. They never once interviewed us in person to get our side of the story. They have put us through hell, but caved in when we fought it tooth and nail.”
The LNR service has not commented on the situation.