Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Probe into Council ‘Big Screen’ project uncovers “serious governance failures”

 A report by the Local Government Auditor on an investigation into the ‘Big Screen’, which was erected on Hill Street in Newry in 2015, has uncovered a “series of flaws” and has raised concern over a “catalogue of serious governance and control failures”, which littered the project.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council erected the giant free-standing digital screen in the heart of the city, next to the Cathedral, with the intention of using it primarily for major sporting events.

The move prompted a public outcry when it was installed in December 2015, with many labelling the huge structure an “eyesore” and others questioning its practicality. 

Clergy from St. Patrick and St. Colman Cathedral immediately sought a judicial review into the planning decision, claiming that neither the Parochial House nor the Cathedral were informed of plans for the Big Screen as part of a neighbour notification exercise by the then Department of Environment (DoE).  

In May 2016, the judicial review concluded with an order to quash the previous DoE decision to grant planning approval.   The church was also awarded “reasonable costs” to cover its legal fees.

Earlier this year, the Department for Communities (DfC) demanded the Council repay more than £23,000 in funding it had given the project after it described the original payment as “irregular”.

The auditor’s report, published on Tuesday last, highlighted a raft of errors in the project.

These included: The creation of false documentation to support processes that were expected to be followed, some of these documents were then issued to the public through Freedom of Information requests; Conflicts of interest between parties involved in the project; and the absence of evidence of a competitive procurement process.

Responding to the report, a spokesperson for Newry, Mourne and Down Council said: “Council has taken all necessary steps to address the lessons learned from this investigation.”

SDLP councillor Pete Byrne, who sits on the Council’s audit committee, said the debacle had eroded public trust.

He said: “We need to ensure that things like this do not happen again.

“It only puts the Council in negative light with the public.”

Sinn Fein councillor Michael Ruane called for the “full truth” of the matter.

He said: “This is an extremely damming report.  Sinn Féin believe that the full truth of this entire matter should come out.  Councillors and Council officers now have the responsibility to ensure that lessons are learnt and such events never occur again.”