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Top civil servant won't join in any official talks on sports funding after taking FAI board role

Watt to avoid possible conflicts of interest in Government work

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Soccer job in ‘personal capacity’: Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Soccer job in ‘personal capacity’: Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Soccer job in ‘personal capacity’: Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Senior civil servant Robert Watt will remove himself from all Government discussions around sport funding after he was appointed to the board of Football Association of Ireland (FAI).

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform secretary-general's decision to accept the position on the board caused concern among ministers who have privately raised questions about how it will affect his work.

And now it has emerged the most senior civil servant in the Government's spending department will no longer attend meetings related to the allocation of sport funding over fears it could result in a conflict of interest.

It is understood Mr Watt will be replaced at key meetings about sport funding by another senior official.

Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry has raised questions about the appointment and he said it would be better if Mr Watt did not accept the independent director role at the FAI.

Yesterday, the Fianna Fáil TD said the secretary-general of one of the State's most important departments should be focused on his Government's work as the country is seeking to bounce back form the economic damage inflicted by the Covid pandemic.

"Robert Watt is an exceptionally qualified and talented person who would be a great asset to any organisation except this one and this time," said Mr MacSharry.

"He is the boss of one of the most important departments in Government in the middle of the biggest global economic crisis in history and we need his expertise where it is."

A Fine Gael minister also said the appointment had concerned party members. "I'm not sure who agreed this or why it happened now but you can be sure it has not gone down well in Fine Gael and questioned are being asked," the minister said.

Mr Watt was involved in negotiations between the government and the FAI last year when it was feared the association was on the brink of collapse due to funding difficulties.

After months of resisting pleas from soccer's domestic governing body for a cash injection, the then government finally agreed to a €30m bailout for the FAI.

A condition of the funding was that half of the association's 12-person board, including the chairman, be independent.

There was speculation last year that Mr Watt would be appointed as an independent board director but it never transpired at the time.

In a statement released after his appointment, he said: "I am honoured and delighted to take up this role and I look forward to assisting with the reform of the association and the development of Irish football in conjunction with my fellow directors and all stakeholders."

Mr Watt joined Roy Barrett, Liz Joyce and Catherine Guy as the fourth independent director on the association's board.

Mr Barrett, who is the independent chairperson of the board, said: "Robert brings a wealth of financial and governance experience to the board and will play a vital role as we deliver real change for football in Ireland."

A spokesperson for Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath confirmed Mr Watt will not attend meetings on sport funding due to his appointment as director.

"The secretary general has been appointed to the board of the FAI in a purely personal capacity," she said.

"To avoid any perceived conflict of interest, the secretary-general will not be involved in any discussions or decisions in the department in relation to funding for soccer or any other sport."

Irish Independent