Failing to learn from mistakes of the past
W HEN Mary Hanafin succeeded Martin Cullen as sports minister there were well-founded grounds for optimism as to what she could achieve in her new portfolio. Widely seen as a talented politician, and touted in some quarters as a future leader of Fianna Fáil, it seemed unlikely she would just pass time in the department.
Although it is unreasonable to form a definitive view of Hanafin's impact after little over four months, small warning signs have tempered initial expectations, at least insofar as the sport part of her brief is concerned. The minister is, of course, charged with overseeing matters of tourism and culture, and it's easy to speculate she is more preoccupied with these areas -- or at least feels more at home with them.
Her first major interview after her appointment, on Morning Ireland, was largely devoted to her ideas on revitalising the country's flagging tourism industry. Sport barely got a mention from the new minister.
Her appointment also came just after Mary Coghlan's High Court case against her former employers at Athletics Ireland and against the Irish Sports Council was settled in Coghlan's favour with disastrous financial consequences for the two publicly-funded bodies.
Coghlan, the former chief executive of AI, had claimed her dismissal was invalid, and sought damages for defamation. She also claimed the ISC put pressure on AI to dismiss her.
The ISC was asked by Martin Cullen to furnish him with a report into the events that led to the High Court action. The hope was that this report, although not independent, would be comprehensive in its scope. Ideally, it would detail the role the ISC played in the events that led to Coghlan's dismissal by AI, explain how the case was allowed to go to the High Court and possibly even outline strategies to ensure against a repeat of these events. Cullen decided that an independent report was not required, a decision subsequently reaffirmed by his successor.
In the immediate fall-out from the case, opting for an internal report over an independent one appeared to be a serious error of judgement. Now, plans by the minister to deliver on a pledge to make the findings of the report public have had to be put on hold in what can only be described as an embarrassing setback to hopes that a line can be drawn in the sand on the affair.
Furthermore, the report furnished to the minister by the ISC is woefully inadequate in tackling its role in the case. In fact, it fails to address any of the serious issues that Coghlan's case highlighted and so misses a golden opportunity for the council and its chief executive John Treacy to oversee change from within.
If any lessons are to be learned from the Coghlan case then it is that the ISC's role in Irish sport has fallen significantly short of expectations. It has failed to put in place clear rules of engagement with those organisations it funds and stands accused of trying to control sports, rather than allow them run themselves.
Change, it seems, can now only be forced on the ISC. Which is where Hanafin (pictured) should come in. Alarm bells should have been ringing for the minister when she read the report -- it should not have required an intervention by Coghlan's solicitors to delay its publication. There are allegations against Coghlan made in the report to which, it's understood, she will respond in writing to both the minister and council members of the ISC. These include a claim that the ISC was extremely confident it would win the case despite the fact that it agreed to settle in her favour, and at considerable cost, just four days into the hearing.
This report has now raised more questions than answers. It is not, however, too late for the minister to do what she should have done four months ago and commission an independent review.
The scope of this review should be broad, right down to forming some kind of meaningful interpretation of the ISC's future role in Irish sport.
The minister also has a key decision to make next month when she appoints a chairperson to the ISC. Her choice should tell us much about what view, if any, she has taken on the whole affair. In the meantime, those involved in administering Irish sport need to hear more of substance from the minister than vacuous notes of congratulations, which sadly have so far been her stock-in-trade.