Monday 27 May 2019

Colette Browne: 'Faith in the FAI can only be restored if it drops its evasive tactics and is open about governance change'

'Answers haven’t been forthcoming. Players, fans and the public have been treated with contempt by an organisation that preferred to circle the wagons rather than engage in transparency.' Photo: Frank McGrath
'Answers haven’t been forthcoming. Players, fans and the public have been treated with contempt by an organisation that preferred to circle the wagons rather than engage in transparency.' Photo: Frank McGrath
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

While John Delaney was staying at the Ritz Carlton in New York and Dubai, the Irish women's team was denied kit for international matches.

In April 2017, members of the senior women's international team made the unprecedented decision to hold a press conference to publicly speak about their dissatisfaction with their treatment by the FAI.

A group of 13 players spoke about how some had been forced to give up their places on the team as they were denied remuneration for international fixtures and couldn't afford the financial hit of taking time off work to travel abroad.

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Most damningly, the FAI would not even pay for tracksuits for players.

Women were forced to change out of their gear in the public toilets of airports and hand them back so they could be used by other teams.

"We are looking for the basics. In the past, we have been getting changed in public toilets on the way to matches. This just highlights the lack of respect. It's not a lot we are looking for, just the basics," said Áine O'Gorman at the time.

Imagine if those players had known what we know now.

That a couple of months before they made the difficult decision to go public, Mr Delaney had used his work credit card to pay a €4,474 bill for a stay at the five-star Ritz Carlton in Dubai.

According to the 'Sunday Times', Mr Delaney was a fan of the Ritz. He stayed at the same hotel in New York in December 2015 at a cost of €8,018 to the FAI.

The former FAI CEO also reportedly used his FAI credit card to make cash withdrawals of €6,000, pay executive dry cleaning bills of €500 and pay a €400 charge at a Hilfiger store in just six months in 2016.

Yesterday, Kerry League chairman John O'Regan, a long-time supporter of Mr Delaney, downplayed the details of Mr Delaney's credit card expenses as merely "a perk of the job".

"Credit cards are the ruination of a lot of people, I am sure there is none of us that haven't, at some time, overspent on our credit card and we paid it back. John overspent on his credit card and to the best of my knowledge he paid it back," he told Seán O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio.

The truth is we don't know whether Mr Delaney repaid some of these charges or not, because neither Mr Delaney nor the FAI has commented on them.

However, it would be extremely interesting to hear a defence of how reservations at the Ritz could be justified for someone on a €360,000 salary, while female players were being denied "perks" as basic as tracksuits and gym membership.

That justification will now be made as part of an external investigation, by auditing firm Mazars, into the finances of the FAI.

CEO of Sport Ireland John Treacy yesterday confirmed he expected an interim report on those finances in six to eight weeks but warned the final report could take "quite a while" to complete.

The most odious aspect of the stories that have emerged about the FAI in the past month has been the evasive position adopted by senior members of the organisation when legitimate questions have been asked.

Fans, many of whom take out credit union loans to travel to support teams, and players, who have been forced to subsist on meagre wages and endure substandard facilities, deserve answers.

Regrettably, those answers have not been forthcoming. Instead players, fans and the public have been treated with contempt by an organisation which has preferred to circle the wagons rather than engage in transparency.

The nadir came last week when senior members of the FAI board appeared at the Oireachtas Sports Committee and were unable to answer basic questions, while Mr Delaney, having read a pre-prepared statement, remained mute for legal reasons throughout the eight-hour hearing.

A week later, we still don't know who signed off on a press release which stated, incorrectly, that the entire board had been made aware of Mr Delaney's €100,000 bridging loan to his employers in 2017.

We are also none the wiser about how an organisation with an annual turnover of €50m could have gotten into a financial position so perilous that a €100,000 loan from its CEO was required to ensure it could pay its bills.

What we do know now, however, is that its auditor, Deloitte, has taken the extraordinary step of filing a notice with the Company Registration Office stating that adequate accounting records were not kept by the FAI.

This seriously ups the ante for the organisation, as failing to keep adequate records can amount to a category one criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines of up to €500,000.

Given the detail of what has emerged in recent weeks, serious questions need to be asked not just about the FAI but about the oversight of the organisation.

Did enough pressure come to bear on the FAI to improve its corporate governance standards in return for grant money from Sport Ireland? Should sports ministers, latterly Shane Ross, have attempted to exert more pressure to ensure there were term limits for board members, some of whom have been in situ for up to 15 years?

TDs and senators, who seemed flummoxed by Mr Delaney's refusal to answer questions at the Oireachtas committee last week, should also be asked why they didn't simply ask him to leave instead of enduring the charade of his silent appearance.

The Oireachtas committee had no power to force Mr Delaney to answer questions, but it could have saved some face by at least telling him to sling his hook when it became apparent that he had no intention of responding to any of its queries.

According to the latest Irish Sports Monitor in 2017, 4.1pc of the population aged over 16 play soccer - down from 4.8pc in 2015.

A crisis in confidence in the FAI will necessarily lead to a further drop in those who opt to participate in the sport.

Now that a rock has been lifted on some of the practices at the FAI, a light must be shone on whatever is found underneath and changes made to ensure corporate governance is beyond reproach. It is the only way that faith, from fans and players alike, can be restored.

Irish Independent

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