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My fears for the future of football in this country

Deputy Marc MacSharry has been vocal lately in his views of soccer in Ireland and outlines his vision in this article for the FAI

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Deputy Marc MacSharry

Deputy Marc MacSharry

Deputy Marc MacSharry

The future of soccer in Ireland is essential to the health of our nation. The poor governance and practices of the past have undermined and threatened its existence.

I am in favour of State financial support for the game to ensure its future is secured. A priority I share with many who care about the game in this country is a renewed national federation which operates to the highest standards of governance and prudent financial management in the development and promotion of soccer from amateur grassroots to the professional scene.

Given the failure of some personnel within the FAI - both paid and voluntary - together with the failure of some state authorities, the Association was allowed to operate with disregard for appropriate standards of governance. Financial irregularities are rightly under investigation and the full rigours of the law should be brought to bear on those responsible for any wrongdoing.

Renewal began last summer with the Governance Review Group (GRG) agreeing 78 reform recommendations.

These were welcomed by all and trumpeted by the then minister, Shane Ross, Sport Ireland and others as the dawn of a new era. The review group set out a pathway to renewal, to weed out the old, bring in the new and establish the highest standards of governance in leading the beautiful game in Ireland.

So, what's the problem?

The FAI urgently needs money. I believe that most of us in Leinster House, regardless of affiliation, are supportive and anxious that the State do what is necessary to save football. The financial realities of the FAI means State intervention is a must if reform is to succeed. The precarious balance sheet left no other option but for the State, the banks and UEFA to step in and help secure the future. In line with the recommendations, recruitment processes got underway for independent directors and an independent chairperson, as the list of 78 recommendations were beginning to be picked off for implementation.

Throughout this period, but separately, another group known as the Football Visionary Group, emerged with suggestions of how the future could look with their involvement. Niall Quinn was a high-profile member.

Meetings took place but ultimately their ideas were not met with the required enthusiasm, plus a reform process was already underway and so it seemed that, for better or for worse, the football visionaries were out of luck.

For any State support to be agreed there clearly had to be quid pro quo in terms of reform and oversight at the FAI. It was assumed that the 78 recommendations, welcomed with such enthusiasm by the then minister, would therfore form the basis of any subsequent agreements and while much of it did, there were additions.

The Visionary Group spoke to many people in the football family, not just at the grassroots, but all the way up to UEFA. I have been told that in such conversations, the idea of splitting the board with six football directors and six independent directors was raised.

This new-look FAI board would give the independent chairperson the casting vote. In other words, football directors would not have a controlling interest in the football federation.

In the months leading up to Christmas, consultants Amrop prepared a shortlist of 10 for the new independent chair of the FAI. A shorter list of preferred candidates was then prepared. It is thought at least two on the shorter list declined, another wasn't contacted again and in relation to another, it is unknown what occurred. What is broadly accepted at this point is that the current independent chair, Roy Barrett, who for all the world may have been the best person for the job, was not on the original list of 10 profiles provided by Amrop. I have seen this list.

It has also been suggested that Barrett did not apply for the position but was rather approached by Amrop in late December at the suggestion of an unknown third party. The appointment was made and announced in early January, and instead of proceeding to recruit a new, permanent chief executive, arrangements were made to recruit an interim one.

Two weeks later, Gary Owens was announced as the FAI's new interim chief executive. It is not clear at this point how the process to appoint Owens was run. Three days later, Niall Quinn became the interim deputy chief executive and again it is not clear what process took place.

I do not question the ability of Owens and Quinn to do their jobs, but at this critical time in the Association's history it is essential that transparency be at the heart of every step it takes. Yet, in less than a month, an independent chairman, interim CEO and interim deputy CEO were in place and, coincidence or not, all three were part of the Football Visionary Group.

I am concerned about the demand for an independent majority on the board. This was a change to the 4:8 split first welcomed by Ross, Sport Ireland, and the Government a year ago.

The draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the FAI and the Government, which is the deal brokered for a State bailout, was circulated to board members by the chairman on January 30.

I'm aware that at least four board members expressed concern about the ability to get the MOU agreed with a clause which insisted upon an independent majority which would be unprecedented in any sport worldwide. But there was no board meeting that day, and the MOU was signed.

The FAI Council was not consulted. Article 3.8 of the Association's constitution requires the express approval of the Council of the FAI to borrow more than €1.27m.

The MOU in itself is not a contract and includes a specific clause that the MOU binds neither the State nor the FAI to any legal agreement and borrowings would have to be underpinned by executing the appropriate legal documents.

Many jersey washers, pitch markers, schoolboy coaches and council members have reached out to me seeking representation to say they were unaware that the terms of the MOU were substantially different to the recommendation approved by the GRG and embraced by all last July. There was no substantive discussion on the matter amongst the board or the Council before the MOU was signed.

There was no Zoom forum arranged to explain the terms before the MOU was signed. Ironically, more than 50 per cent of the FAI Council members have now sought an emergency meeting to address these issues.

Furthermore, the board of the FAI has written to the new ministers, Catherine Martin and Jack Chambers, seeking a meeting with a delegation of the Board to discuss these matters.

There have been attempts to consistently undermine the concerns of myself and others by suggesting I wish to promote or protect the old guard and open the door for their return.

This is absolutely not the case. I despise the abuse of the previous regime and all the financial and reputational damage it has caused Irish football. It should be acknowledged, though, that previous board members, council members, employees and volunteers who raised questions in the past were marginalised. Questions were raised too with Sport Ireland, and with previous ministers.

In my view, the MOU seeks to solidify this mistake by excluding them and many more ordinary hard-working members of the football family from any future role within a renewed federation. This is wrong by any definition of natural justice. And, as far as old guards go, there are a number of old guards in play. These include the old guard at Sport Ireland and the Department of Sport, on whose watch the FAI fell from grace. They heard no evil, saw no evil.

Everyone I know in football wants to secure the future of the game. They wish to do so in a way that ensures absolute good governance. They fear, as do I, that the pathway being followed since December is one that has lacked transparency and one that could lead to the privatisation of soccer in Ireland by stealth.

Whether coincidental or not, the independent chairman, interim CEO and deputy interim CEO are the three main promoters of what was known as the Football Visionary Group. The most worrying changes to the terms of the MOU not reflected in the GRG recommendations is the introduction of independent control of football in Ireland.

The new era for the FAI was born on the promise of good corporate governance. The principles underlying corporate governance are based on conducting all business with integrity and fairness, being transparent with regard to all transactions and making all necessary disclosures. It's for each to make their own decision, but based on what I have outlined above and my own experience in the past on the Public Accounts Committee, the Banking Inquiry and in business, I do not believe what has transpired in the FAI over the last year meets an acceptable standard of the principles of governance.

Added to that, I do not believe that appointing Robert Watt to the board last week was a good move.

Watt is Secretary General of our busiest department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and being a member of the FAI board, given the reliance it will now have on State funding, is a clear conflict in my view. He is not our man on the board; he is on it in a private capacity.

The very real problem now is that Sport Ireland, the Government and the Department of Sport are pushing what seems to me to coincide with at least some of what was the Football Visionary Group's agenda.

In a most worrying development, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said if all stakeholders don't accept these terms then there will be no payment of Covid funds. When I raised this again on Thursday in the Dáil, Hildegarde Naughton said that they "would not reopen for discussion any part of the MOU agreed by the previous Government." If media reports are accurate, it is expected the Taoiseach will add his support. The wagons are decidedly circled.

I appreciate it is a three-party coalition Government, but I can say with certainty that at the beginning of June in his office on the fourth floor of Leinster House, the Fianna Fáil leader said to me as the party spokesperson on sport that the MOU should be reviewed by the new Government. I agreed and issued a statement accordingly. I hope he has not changed his mind. It's now a game of chicken. Who will blink first? I fear for football in Ireland and the agenda which has emerged with the state-sponsored retro-engineering of the federation to follow a worrying agenda.

It is my earnest wish to secure a healthy, accountable federation in leading the beautiful game to the highest standards of governance at all levels. I hope that the requested meetings between a delegation of the FAI board and the ministers and the emergency meeting of the FAI's council make the necessary progress to sort out this mess. If they don't, the turkeys won't vote for Christmas and as things stand, I can't say I blame them.

Sligo Champion