Ilex faces a battle to regain public confidence after it was hauled before a Stormont watchdog to admit making mistakes with public money, a local MLA has said.
Colum Eastwood, the SDLP spokesperson at OFMDFM, said that the city’s regeneration body will only regain the trust of the Derry public “through a singular focus” on the development of the Fort George and Ebrington sites it is responsible for revamping.
Ilex was recently criticised in auditor’s report for spending more than £400,000 without proper government approval and paying unauthorised bonuses to former CEO Bill Kirk.
Current CEO Aideen McGinley this week publicly apologised for what she called mistakes when questioned by Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
She told the Stormont watchdog: “We got it wrong and we’re going to put it right. I’m confident we know what’s gone wrong and I’m confident that we can deal with it.”
She assured the committee that lessons had been learned and said a number of procedures had been put in place to ensure there was no repeat of the unauthorised spending.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Eastwood said it was now time to get the regeneration of the two sites “back on track”.
“I welcome the apology by Dr Aideen McGinley. It is clear that Ilex have a major job of work to do to regain full public trust and confidence.
“It is imperative that good news stories such as the City of Culture and the Peace Bridge are not used to excuse the irregular spend of taxpayers’ money. Lessons must be learned and never repeated.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, PAC member Mitchel McLaughlin accused Ilex of “blatant disregard for rules and sponsor control”.
The Sinn Fein MLA pointed out that, as a former permanent secretary of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Dr McGinley should have been well aware of spending regulations.
“Are we expected to believe that you didn’t know the absolute duty to report the issues that are now dealt with as unapproved expenditure, or are you expecting us to accept that you did, in fact, blatantly disregard rules which you were completely and absolutely familiar with?”, Mr McLaughlin asked.
Dr McGinley said: “I’m here to explain but there are things that I can’t defend”.
She added: “We need to regain the trust and confidence of this committee, the assembly, our sponsor departments - but most importantly the city - and that’s what we are determined, as a board and a staff, to do”.
PAC member and SDLP MLA John Dallat said Dr McGinley “shouldn’t be vilified”.
“Derry was under a great deal of pressure to win the bid for City of Culture. Government departments were slow to respond and rules were put aside.
“That was wrong but Derry did win the bid for City of Culture and there is now an opportunity to showcase this wonderful city to the world,” he added.
In a statement, Matt McNulty, the company’s interim chairman, said the issues that led to the auditor general’s report were “most regrettable”.
“To ensure this situation does not recur, the board and management of Ilex have carried out a thorough review which resulted in a detailed and comprehensive action plan which is currently being implemented,” he said.