Sport GAA

Saturday 24 August 2019

Dermot Crowe on GAA governance: 'It's not our money, that's the culture'

GAA governance is not so perfect that there won't be problems, but early identification is key

GAA director-general Tom Ryan (left) looks on while president John Horan presents the Sam Maguire Cup to Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Brendan Moran
GAA director-general Tom Ryan (left) looks on while president John Horan presents the Sam Maguire Cup to Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Brendan Moran

Dermot Crowe

The former GAA PRO Danny Lynch was "flabbergasted" by the volume of credit card spending by John Delaney over a six-month period in 2016. In his 20 years as PRO, Lynch worked with two GAA directors-general, Liam Mulvihill and Páraic Duffy, who occupied similarly influential positions to Delaney, the former FAI CEO who left his generously-paid position recently under a cloud of controversy.

"I would imagine that in any sporting organisation eyebrows would be raised at that kind of money," says Lynch. "And this business of (Delaney) visiting thousands of clubs and all that, that would never happen in a GAA context because that would be considered a job for the president. I couldn't imagine Liam Mulvihill or Páraic Duffy or Seán Ó Síocháin doing country tours. It's just not the way that business is done."

But even the GAA president, as someone who once occupied that office pointed out, wouldn't be doling out grants on his tours of the clubs. "We would see the role of the director-general as being about promoting policy, creating policy and implementing the decisions and policies of Central Council and the Management Committee," Lynch states. "As distinct from the bells and whistles of visiting different clubs and having your photograph taken."

Lynch says that various measures and checks help to monitor credit card use. "Because any expenditure or even an annual salary increase would be put before the Management Committee and they would have to approve it," he explains. "And everything is carefully audited on an annual basis. And the accounts are published and open to scrutiny and question."

The GAA has had its own governance issues at regional and local level but tend to move in quickly to put out fires before they spread too widely. "Where we do fall down," says one former member of the Management Committee (the equivalent of the FAI board of directors), "is where clubs are supposed to send accounts into the county board. I am not sure that rule is honoured 100 per cent, in fact I know it's not. But the rule is there. It is an ongoing process. We are dealing with Ireland, and rural Ireland.

"The national body do scrutinise county board accounts and they do call people in. And we have had situations like in Kildare where someone was put in for two months to straighten out their accounts. And we had it in Roscommon as well where remedial action was taken. It shows that the organisation is pro-active and I think that is very healthy."

In recent years the GAA established a National Audit Committee, which audits governance and performance within the organisation like an on-site watchdog. "That is a significant pro-active step," says one source who worked in Croke Park. "In fairness, Páraic Duffy as director-general took this on board and it would partly have been brought on by the level of governance required at the (Croke Park) stadium committee level."

Tighter mechanisms to deal with cash collection, such as revenue raised through ticket sales, has been ongoing with the aid of advanced technology. "The GAA recognises that you are never ahead and always looking around the corner seeing where the next threat is coming from," says one source. "You have to guard yourself from that. The secret to good governance is being pro-active rather than reactive."

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The GAA's 'Governance Guide', which set out guidelines for all units on how to run their affairs efficiently and transparently, was produced by the National Audit Committee in 2016.

Governance at county level has improved greatly in the last 20 years with officer training programmes and seminars and the emergence of full-time secretaries. Limits of five years have also been introduced to end the notoriously long stays in office that were once commonplace among county boards. The perception of some figures within county committees holding too much power can still hold true, even though all are answerable to the clubs. One long-standing officer was recently compared to a disreputable African dictator.

Galway county convention last year heard withering accusations of widespread abuse of expenses and blatant credit card over-spend by officers in the county. Internal and external audits followed and a changing of the guard to try to stabilise the situation and root out bad practice. Croke Park has also had to intervene when the spend on Páirc Uí Chaoimh went over acceptable limits.

While long stays in office have been a point of concern within the FAI's board of directors, the GAA has a three-year limit for members of its Management Committee, which runs the day-to-day affairs of the Association. "In terms of the governance with our counties a massive amount has changed in the last 20 years," says one senior source. "That doesn't necessarily stop something like the situation in Galway. But I would say generally the mechanisms we have in place will catch stuff before it gets too bad. That is the whole way down, right down to the clubs. We don't have financial scandals in the GAA as such. We have issues. The safest thing we can say is that if someone wants to defraud, they can. And it's a hard thing to stop but if the base culture is right, then it becomes that bit harder to do."

Within Croke Park, all spending is carefully monitored. "With credit card spending," says one high-ranking employee, "on a monthly basis the bill comes in and we have to fill out a form. We have to say what the item of expenditure was for and who it was with, to justify the spending on a transaction-by-transaction basis. We also have to attach receipts to the credit card bill. What I would say is that, in the GAA, there are very strict controls. On the nature of spending, on the amount etc.

"But that comes down to a culture and I guess it's not surprising - we often talk in here about volunteer money. That anything we are spending is volunteer money. Everything is itemised, very specific. Say I was down the country with two or three volunteers and we met in a hotel. It might be a case that I would cover the lunch for that. Then I would have to fill out a form when I got back, saying who I was with, the purpose of the meeting and basically why I spent what I spent."

Are there guidelines or are you expected to know what's acceptable?

"There are two answers to that question. One is, there are no particular guidelines. However, because you're checked up on every month, in other words every month I get sent down my bill, and I have to send it back to justify my spending, it can't get out of control.

"But while there are no specific guidelines it's that culture again, that we are all very conscious of it being volunteer money. It's not like being in, just say in Google, where you might splash out on a round of drinks for people or whatever because it's the company's money. It's not our money. We are always conscious of that. And you always make that link in your head back. The more I spend here the more someone has to sell club lotto tickets."

Around half of Sport Ireland's €5m annual contribution to the GAA goes on inter-county player grants. The balance accounts for approximately four per cent of the GAA's overall income of €63m. "Again I talk of the general culture of working for a volunteer organisation, from the minute you walk in governance is all over the place," says a source who has worked in Croke Park for two decades. "Literally knit into the culture so deeply that you end up justifying everything you've paid for. You end up nearly apologising at times for buying necessary things for an International Rules team or something like that. We are almost at the point of being stingy. But we have to be, because we are so accountable. And I don't think you will see a more detailed set of accounts than our annual statements."

On disclosing the director-general's salary he says that this was part of a motion in the past which was rejected. "Look it's no secret (the approximate figure). I have seen the figure of half (of John Delaney's former salary) being mentioned, or even less than half . . ."

If the same crisis had befallen current GAA director-general Tom Ryan or his predecessors, he is in no doubt that he would be held immediately accountable and his position would be untenable.

"He'd be gone the very second that broke. I wouldn't ever be complacent enough to say we haven't had issues elsewhere. But in Croke Park that kind of spending wouldn't be likely to happen."

A few years ago there was an attempt to remove subsidiary boards in counties to improve governance. In Galway, which has a county committee and separate boards for hurling and football, that eventually proved problematic and led to too much vested interest and people setting off in different directions.

But the scale of John Delaney's spending is something the GAA cannot relate to. "€40,000 in six months?" says Danny Lynch. "I mean, the mind boggles as to how you could do that even." He says Croke Park's books were fully audited by the Revenue Commissioners a little over 10 years ago and given the all-clear.

On Tom Ryan's salary being made public, to add greater transparency, Lynch sees no issue. "I don't see why it shouldn't, because based on what the FAI guy was getting I would suggest it would be in the region of a third of it."

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