Five crew members have been expelled from Lough Neagh Rescue by the Charity Commission after a long-running and emotive dispute.
This is the first time members of a charity have been removed by the commission in Northern Ireland.
Lough Neagh Rescue, a 24-hour volunteer lifeboat service which operates from two stations at Kinnego and Ardboe, continued to provide life-saving services despite the dispute and answered more than 20 distress calls last year alone.
The interim findings of an initial inquiry carried out by the charity watchdog, seen by the BBC, revealed that at the height of the dispute, locks were changed at one of the lifeboat stations and charity funds were frozen for about a year.
The five crew members who have been removed initially went to the Charity Commission and made a series of allegations about how the charity was being run. The allegations were considered to be unfounded by the commission, it turned its investigative powers upon them.
The commission said: “Information has also been forthcoming from other sources which contradicts and calls into question the motivation of some of those who raised the initial concerns, and they now appear to be obstructing and frustrating the commission’s investigation.”
The commission alleged the actions of the group were posing “a serious risk to the charity, its reputation and beneficiaries”.
The five crew members deny any wrongdoing, and intend to appeal. It appears the dispute began after plans were unveiled for another lifeboat station at Antrim. This led to allegations that the group intended to form a breakaway faction and pass on assets of the charity to others.
The commission said: “There is without doubt evidence of misconduct on the part of individuals whose motivation appears to be have been to divert assets and funding to other bodies, to obstruct the efficiency.. and adversely affect the reputation of Lough Neagh Rescue Ltd, and indeed to close the charity completely.”