Saturday 25 March 2017

Hanafin's chance for a new beginning

Six weeks ago, Martin Cullen, then minister for sport, asked the Irish Sports Council to prepare an "urgent report" on the events that led up to an embarrassing and expensive High Court action brought by Mary Coghlan, the former chief executive of Athletics Ireland.

If the report is comprehensive in its scope, it should detail the role the ISC played in the events that led to Coghlan's dismissal by Athletics Ireland as well as explaining how her case was allowed to go to the High Court.

After four days of evidence, the case was settled, Coghlan was vindicated and Irish sport was left with a bill of about €800,000. The ISC's report will provide some insight on its interpretation of its role in Irish sport and its significance goes far beyond the specifics of the Coghlan case.

At issue is not just the bare detail of how and why Coghlan was isolated and fired by her own organisation, or the pressure that was brought to bear on Athletics Ireland when its annual core funding was withheld by the ISC, or even the viciousness of the verbal assault on Coghlan made by Ossie Kilkenny, the ISC chairman.

The core of the matter is the way in which the ISC engages with all the sports organisations that it funds on our behalf with our money. What are the rules of engagement? And what rules exist that ensure that sports organisations meet a specific standard of governance before they receive a euro of public money? If the new minister Mary Hanafin thought the Coghlan case was an isolated incident, the events of the past two weeks should have made her, and her advisers, realise that the problems in the administration of Irish sport do not begin and end with athletics.

The latest damaging row between the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and the ISC highlights the ongoing tensions between national sports organisations and the quango that funds them. The disputes are never simple -- there tends to be right and wrong on both sides -- but the recurring theme is straightforward. Without clear rules on governance -- the size of a board, the independence of directors, clear procedures on appointments, high-quality business plans, transparency, rules of engagement with the ISC -- there exists clear potential for distrust, suspicion, inappropriate interference and ultimately a complete breakdown in the relationship between the sports organisation and the ISC.

The boxing saga touches on most of those points. Dominic O'Rourke, the president who has been appointed head of the IABA's High Performance unit, is well respected in the sport and has an excellent track-record as a coach. But his appointment has caused consternation because he has leapfrogged Billy Walsh, the world renowned coach who has been effectively running the High Performance unit for the past two years.

In the politics of the sport, Walsh is perceived to be too close to the ISC because of his association with Gary Keegan, the former High Performance director who now works for the ISC. That would not matter if the relationship between the IABA and the ISC was healthy, but it is not.

The funding of boxing's elite performers has been tightly controlled through the HP programme, and so control of the programme is critical for control of the sport's main source of funds. The ISC is right to be concerned by Walsh's demotion, but it cannot escape responsibility for the mess. Ireland's two highest profile Olympic sports have been convulsed by controversy two years before the Olympics. Even worse, boxing is one of our rare Olympic success stories, delivering medals in Beijing for Kenny Egan (pictured), Paddy Barnes and the late Darren Sutherland.

The ISC's apparent obsession with micro-managing high-profile sports that do not have the financial muscle to look after themselves sows the seed for the tensions that subsequently cause those sports to tear themselves apart. It has failed to put in place firm rules and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that its failure stems from an impulse to control sports, rather than allow them to run themselves.

The absence of clear rules creates a grey area in which a controlling ISC can wield power and influence: it has the money, and from money flows power. The ISC's responsibilities should be to enforce proper governance, to set high standards for those sports that receive substantial funding, but once those hurdles have been cleared individual sports have to be allowed to run themselves.

The ISC's over-riding ethos should be to collaborate with, not control, the sports it funds. That has not simply happened and Hanafin should use the opportunity presented by the Coghlan case to champion a more collaborative sports council.

The irony of the boxing dispute is that even when the ISC has solid ground to take a stand -- Walsh's credentials for the high performance post are impeccable -- its lack of credibility and its failure to lay down ground rules count against it. The ISC and Irish sport are victims of those failings and Hanafin needs to start the process of change and renewal. Urgently.

Sunday Independent

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