Five members of the lifeboat charity Lough Neagh Rescue have been reinstated after the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland dropped its opposition to their appeal on the final afternoon of a five-day tribunal hearing.
Greg Burke, Robert Orton, Michael Savage, Michael McGivern and Joseph Hughes were removed as lifeboat crew from the charity by the commission in October after it opened a statutory inquiry into the charity 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 lifeboat men’s appeal against the decision was heard over five days at the Charity Tribunal Northern Ireland in Belfast last week.
A trustee of the charity, Trevor McKee, was also removed from the charity by the regulator and his appeal was heard at the same time. The CCNI did not drop its opposition to his appeal and a judgment on his appeal is expected on 11 April.
Speaking for the five volunteers, Burke said the group felt vindicated by the outcome but that actions by the charity meant they would not be able to rejoin as volunteers.
"We have not been restored as members because the charity decided, the week before our appeal, to ask volunteers to reaffirm their membership – knowing that we could not do so – in order to make this a hollow victory," he told Third Sector.
"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."
Burke said the case was a "David versus Goliath" legal battle at the tribunal, at which the five volunteers were represented by a local businessman with no legal experience while the commission had a full legal team, including a barrister, at its disposal.
"Despite this, we gave the commission a beating of mega proportions," said Burke.
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. As a result, we have taken the decision not to oppose the appeals of the five members."
It declined to comment further.
Burke said the commission’s decision not to oppose the appeals after five days of hearings showed that it had misused its statutory powers against them and that the five felt aggrieved by how it had treated them.
"It prosecuted this case against us for six months and pursued the case over five days of the appeal before dropping its opposition, which we believe shows it used its powers unreasonably and disproportionately," said Burke. "There never was a case to answer and lives were undoubtedly put at risk by the decision to remove us because there were fewer competent crew members to run the lifeboat station."
Lough Neagh Rescue had not responded to a request for comment before publication of this story.