Friday 23 August 2019

Shane Ross: 'FAI is united and strong at the bottom - but it's split at the top'

There needs to be a clean sweep of the FAI's upper echelons. Only then can Government funding restart, says Shane Ross

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Shane Ross

Is the FAI on the brink of real reform? Or are we witnessing the mother of all rearguard actions? My guess is that Irish football is split at the top, but united at the bottom.

The old guard, perched at the top, are still seeking ways of clinging to power. The foot soldiers, at the bottom, are crying out for change. The overwhelming vote in favour of reform last night indicates a deep hunger for reform.

At the EGM the reform package was passed. It is a welcome first step, but it is far from root and branch reform. The Government looks on, aghast, at corporate governance breaches. But the FAI has gone walkabout.

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Football is a national passion. Participation is at record levels. The Government fervently wishes to support football on the ground - but not a governing body in danger of financial armageddon. Taxpayers' money must be spent properly, not at the whims of sports bodies that play fast and loose with the rules.

Radical change must now follow. Simultaneously, the independence of the FAI, an outfit that defends its freedom from external control or undue influence, must be respected.

FIFA and UEFA are right to consistently assert the independence of the FAI. But the top brass at the FAI would be optimistic to expect international bodies to ignore any pending findings of sins against corporate governance codes. A whole series of reports about FAI activities are in the pipeline.

Sport Ireland has withheld monies from any sporting body that fails to live up to required standards. The FAI is, sadly, in this space. So, their funding has been cut. It will be restored, but not before, the FAI returns to acceptable governance norms.

On April 16, FAI president Donal Conway wrote to me, insisting that he and all the other directors of the FAI would step down at the annual general meeting this month. I believed him. He was redeeming himself. Regime change was on the way.

Last week he put his name forward for re-election as president of the FAI.

I responded by asking him to withdraw his nomination and honour his promise. Apparently the FAI regard my demand that he keep his word as an interference in its independence! Pretty odd, as he himself publicly introduced the subject in his letter.

It is chronically bad corporate governance for anyone to sit on the board of such an important body for 14 years, as Donal Conway has done. Not only that, he is now seeking an extension.

Last week Sport Ireland's John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey, Oireachtas sports committee chairman Fergus O'Dowd TD and the influential voice of independent Senator Padraig O Ceidigh all agreed that Mr Conway should go.

The Government, as an important source of funds for the FAI, is obliged to pinpoint publicly the most obvious flaws in a body that we want to fund - but cannot support, as long as it continues to breach acceptable corporate governance norms.

Fourteen years (and an extension) for one man on a troubled board is woeful corporate governance. The reason is obvious. If corporate kings or queens retain positions of power for too long, they can develop bad habits. Accountability could go out the window. Vigilance can disappear. Pals keep pals on boards. Expenses become lax. Annual accounts are not produced in time for scheduled meetings. Numerous inquiries or forensic audits are required. All familiar sins in the FAI. Conway's decision to stay on - even if unopposed - is mind- boggling.

Equally worrying is his determination that agreed changes in the FAI rules should be passed at a meeting held behind closed doors. No media invited. His insistence that questions for annual meetings of the FAI must abide by the traditional convention - that they be submitted seven days in advance - fuels unease about whether the current board has anything but a token interest in transparency.

Apparently the FAI bigwigs believe that at least two directors should serve another year to give the board "continuity". Surely the last thing needed at the FAI is "continuity"?

Conway could do worse than reflect on the recent fate and fortune of another government-funded sporting body - the Olympic Council of Ireland (now the OFI).

There are parallels between the two episodes - but to be fair to Conway, not between the two men at their helms. Yet the OCI experience has shown there is a clear way forward.

Just three years ago Pat Hickey's OCI was revealed as being hopelessly inadequate in its corporate governance. It had been under the thumb of Hickey for far too long. Government funding was withdrawn. Hickey was toppled. A new regime was installed.

Conway may have done a decent job in recent weeks - but he has failed to see that he is part of the problem, not the solution. The decision to recruit another member of the FAI old guard, Noel Mooney, to his side as general manager was an ominous indication of a an instinctive hostility to reform.

As if the return of old FAI loyalist Noel Mooney was not enough, the extraordinary imposition of a board quorum of only two people into the FAI articles of association was troubling. Even the corporate governance review did not recommend such a bizarre minimum number for board meetings to be quorate. Paradoxically, the rule book nominates six. Rule books are easier to change than constitutions!

Imagine the FAI falling into the hands of two ghosts of the past.

Mr Conway could still leave a legacy to the FAI. After presiding over the reform package last night he could depart the stage. And he could ask the best friend of the old FAI, Noel Mooney, to return to Switzerland.

Shane Ross TD is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

Sunday Independent

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