Five members of Lough Neagh Rescue (LNR), expelled from the organisation by the NI Charities Commission, have prepared a 1,000-page dossier to present to an appeal scheduled for March 24.
The appeal will be to a Charities Tribunal, after the five went to the commission following an intense row within the LNR, which led to their removal, and what they term was “the freezing out” of more than 30 members of the group.
The five are Gregory Burke, Robert Orton, Michael Savage, Michael McGivern and Joseph Hughes. They insist that the NI Charities Commission treated them unjustly by removing them from duty, although they are saving their counsel for the appeal.
Gregory Burke said, “I am confident the tribunal will find the commission’s allegations have absolutely no grounds in fact.”
Meanwhile, a key man of the 30 “frozen out” – former chairman Trevor McKee – said, “I am still a member of the charity (LNR) and along with others have been denied access to my duties for two years.”
Mr McKee insisted, “The five men – plus those frozen out – have an exemplary record in their activities within LNR, as I have.”
He added that he joined as a volunteer lifesaver in October 1989 after his friend and classmate David Gray drowned in the lough and whose father, also David, raised the funding and established the lifeboat service.
He went on, “My own service is parallel to what so many others did, many of whom now find themselves out in the cold.
“The five who have been removed, plus myself, went to the NI Charity Commission with certain misgivings. They found themselves removed and I have long since been replaced as chairman.
“I have been awarded The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and a Mayor’s Community Award.
“These were for my contributions to the community, and serving in a frontline rescue role for a period of greater than 10 years.”
He added that the row came to a head during a raucous annual meeting in December 2011 in Antrim Forum – LNR has crews at Kinnego Marina, at Antrim and at Ardboe on the western shore of the lough in County Tyrone.
Said Mr McKee, “To cut a long story short, a new board was set up, some erstwhile members were suspended, denied access to training, our emergency pages were disabled, locks at lifeboat station were changed – all totally unfair and unnecessary, in my view.
“After seeking legal advice and consulting a group of charity specialists, we approached the new Charity Commission for help, but got nowhere. Now, five good men are removed from LNR.
“We are challenging the Charity Commission’s actions through the tribunal process and are confident that we can show the tribunal we did our utmost for LNR.”
The commission confirmed in a recent BBC report it had launched a full “statutory inquiry” into the Lough Neagh Rescue, adding that it was not in a position to comment further.
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.”