Monday 26 September 2016

Pat Hickey has form when it comes to sports ministers with an agenda

Jody Corcoran recalls the night that Olympic Council credit card receipts were handed over in a Dublin pub

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

Long reign: Pat Hickey has been president of the OCI for 28 years. Photo: Sportsfile
Long reign: Pat Hickey has been president of the OCI for 28 years. Photo: Sportsfile

Shane Ross is the latest Minister for Sport to be criticised for the perceived timid nature of his recent interactions with the Olympic Council of Ireland, which is mired in potential scandal in Rio, Brazil. It is notable, however, that such criticism has not come from political rivals, but from former colleagues in the media, none of whom have had to directly interact with the council or its president of 28 years, Pat Hickey.

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In my 20-plus years association with the Sunday Independent, I have come up against the Olympic Council and Mr Hickey on a few occasions, and on one occasion in particular, which gave a valuable insight into how that organisation conducts its business at the curious and unregulated interface where sport meets politics.

Three weeks before the general election in 1997, this newspaper published a front-page article under the headline: 'Minister denies getting a free holiday'. The minister was former Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen. Last week, the former Sports Minister and I briefly recollected these events, which, as I say, may give an insight into how some in the OCI conduct business.

The context may have been the general election 20 years ago, in which the then Rainbow Coalition was seeking re-election, but as Mr Allen recollected last week, the real context was his earlier decision to rearrange the funding of sports organisations here.

Indeed, at the time the article quoted Mr Allen as follows: "It is extremely strange that this issue is being resurrected again at a time when I have taken a major decision in relation to the rearrangement of funding of Irish sporting organisations and the Olympic Council."

The issue of Mr Allen's holiday arrangements at the Beach Club, Simon Island in Atlanta, Georgia in the US had indeed been reported before, not least by the journalist David Walsh in this newspaper: the issue was "resurrected" when I received OCI credit card receipts which purported to show that the council had paid for the then minister, his wife and two children on a four-day stay at the resort at a cost of $778.80.

It might be illuminating to now reveal a little of how those AIB Visa credit card receipts came to light. The receipts were in the name of 'The President, Olympic Council Irl', with a then address at Upper Dorset Street in Dublin 1. The president, then as now, until he temporarily stepped aside last week, was one Patrick Hickey.

It must be pointed out at this stage that Bernard Allen then and now vehemently denies that the OCI had paid for his and his family's holiday, four days which were tagged on to an official visit he had made as Minister for Sport to Atlanta for St Patrick's Day in March 1995.

The Olympics were being staged in Atlanta the following year and the idea was that, as the article stated, Mr Allen would "promote the Olympic movement in Ireland and the OCI in Atlanta" in advance of those games.

Indeed, at the time the article was prepared, Mr Allen produced his own credit card receipts which showed that he had paid for car hire, meals and golf green fees during the holiday. He also maintained that he was absolutely certain he had paid for the accommodation in cash.

"He is adamant that he paid in cash for the accommodation. He had cash at the end of the holiday," Mr Allen's solicitor stated at the time, adding: "Maybe it was paid for twice" by way of explanation of the OCI credit card receipts. "I paid the bill directly myself on leaving the apartment, by either cash or traveller cheque. I can't remember which. I have no records available. It was a long time ago," Mr Allen told me personally back then.

The occasion is now appropriate to state without fear of contradiction that those OCI credit card receipts were made available to me one night in a pub on Fenian Street in Dublin, two years after the event - and shortly before the then election - in the full awareness, knowledge and with the imprimatur of Pat Hickey.

The OCI subsequently attempted to suggest that the council had no hand, act or part in disclosing the financial records, as was evident from a statement issued shortly before publication: "We regret the delay in responding which was due to a need to check our records," it stated.

What was even more illuminating about the OCI's then statement was the way in which the council viewed its relationship with the sports minister of the day, which may go some way towards explaining the council's attitude towards Shane Ross, and why it confidently felt it could put the current Sports Minister "back in his box".

The OCI statement in 1997 reads: "The Department of Education and the Minister for Sport, Bernard Allen, is not treated any differently than any other commercial Olympic sponsor.

"The role of the President of the OCI and one of the functions of the OCI is to raise much-needed funding for the Olympic athletes…We are happy to co-operate with any sponsor with a view to raising funds or increasing money available for Irish Olympic athletes."

So there you have it. Even though the Olympic Council of Ireland has received €1.7m in State funding over the last four years, it would seem the council still believes the sports minister of the day has no greater authority than any other commercial sponsor, which can be told to get back in its box at the whim of an organisation which has been run by the same man since 1988.

The question now is whether Mr Ross has the wherewithal to bring such an outdated attitude to an end, and whether he will get the support to do so of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and others who have had reason to cross swords with Pat Hickey down through the decades, and still bear the wounds to show it.

Sunday Independent

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