Ryan wins party backing over plan for freeview rugby
EMBATTLED Communications Minister Eamon Ryan last night won support from the Green Party and Fianna Fail for his plan to make rugby matches free to view on Irish channels.
Tensions between the Government parties and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) ramped up a notch as personalised claims aimed at Mr Ryan backfired.
Rugby bosses' assertions that the minister's ideas are "absolutely cracked" and based on a "hunch" backfired yesterday as he drew support among Fianna Fail backbenchers.
Mr Ryan also has the backing of his party leader John Gormley and senior Green Party figures such as Senator Dan Boyle.
But Sports Minister Mary Hanafin is continuing to sit on the fence on the issue.
She repeatedly refused to outline her opinion again yesterday, insisting she will make a formal submission to Mr Ryan after engaging with the sports bodies. The controversy over the broadcasting rights for the Heineken Cup and Six Nations matches will intensify today when Sky TV chiefs meet with Mr Ryan in Government Buildings.
Sky is expected to mount strong opposition to the plans to take its exclusive and lucrative broadcasting rights and make all Irish games in the Six Nations and Heineken Cup free to air.
The IRFU has also been invited to appear before the Oireachtas committee on sports on June 2 to answer questions from TDs and Senators.
A dim view has already been taken in the Government coalition parties about the IRFU attack on Mr Ryan, which was regarded as "arrogant" and "over-the-top".
"They're treading on eggshells after yesterday," a source said.
Fianna Fail TDs accused the IRFU of going "too hard" on Mr Ryan, with one challenging the IRFU to "show us the money" -- in reference to their claims they will suffer a €12m loss if Mr Ryan pursues his divisive plan.
A spokesman for Mr Gormley last night said he supported Mr Ryan on his free-to-air stance.
"Yes, he supports Eamon Ryan who has begun a process to examine how best the viewing public can see games free of charge," he said.
"This is the opening of a consultation process and he believes all sporting organisations should engage in this consultation."
Asked to be absolutely clear on where he stood on Mr Ryan's position, the spokesman added: "He supports Eamon Ryan."
Senator Boyle claimed the IRFU was "ignoring" the money provided to it by taxpayers for the new Aviva Stadium when calculating its potential losses.
Efforts to contact other Green Party TDs and senators proved unsuccessful last night as they opted to stay out of the war of words.
And Sports Minister Mary Hanafin also refused to be drawn on her support for either side. "Believe you me, I will be carrying all of the different arguments into consultation," she said.
But her party's backbenchers were more forthcoming, and several pointed to the vast sums of money provided to the IRFU.
Many hit out at some of the emotive language used by the union.
Fianna Fail's Niall Collins, a TD in the heart of Munster's rugby heartland, said the IRFU should remember the annual funding provided by taxpayers and the €190m for the new Aviva Stadium.
The Limerick TD called on the IRFU to explain how they came up with a figure of €12m as the potential loss to the sector if the rugby matches are made free on regular Irish channels. He further claimed the IRFU had gone "too hard" when they unleashed a barrage of criticism at Mr Ryan.
"Let's see the bucks. Let's have a debate about it. Let's have a full and open consultation about it. Let's see how much they actually are making." he said. "Show us the money, as the man says."
His constituency colleague, Fianna Fail TD John Cregan, said he had an open mind on the issue but claimed Mr Ryan is perfectly entitled to examine all the options open to him.
He said some of the language used by the IRFU had been "a little bit strong".