Sport GAA

Monday 22 October 2018

Paul Kimmage: The curious case of a Dublin club, a twenty grand cheque and some unanswered questions for the GAA

 

The O’Dwyer’s club grounds in Balbriggan. Photo: David Conachy
The O’Dwyer’s club grounds in Balbriggan. Photo: David Conachy
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"I'm always more concerned with what we do with the money as opposed to where we take it from" - Tom Ryan, the new GAA Ard Stiurthoir, April 17, 2018

It began, as it often does, with a man in a taxi. It was a Friday evening in June. The man had spent the day in Croke Park, doing what delegates do when they report to HQ, and had retired for a quiet drink at the Croke Park Hotel before hailing the cab. A story had broken that afternoon that a caretaker of a GAA ground had been charged with over a hundred sexual offences against children.

"Did you hear about that?" the Driver asked.

"We were talking about it today," the man replied.

"Shocking."

"It is, but the GAA are the first organisation to set up a company to deal with stuff like that."

The GAA’s director general, Tom Ryan, who responded to the complaint. Photo: Sportsfile
The GAA’s director general, Tom Ryan, who responded to the complaint. Photo: Sportsfile

"A company?"

"Yeah, a confidential line to report or register complaints. It's called 'Speak Out'."

"Speak Out?"

"Yeah."

Seven months passed before the Driver thought of it again. The month was February 2018 and he had a couple of hours to kill before starting his evening shift and tapped it into his Googaliser . . . S-P-E-A-K 0-U-T . . . but there was no obvious reference or connection to the GAA. He tried another combination . . . S-P-E-A-K O-U-T + C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T-I-A-L + A-B-U-S-E + G-A-A . . . But came up short again.

He phoned the receptionist at Croke Park and was transferred to an administrator and spent 10 minutes trying to register his complaint before the penny dropped: "You're not qualified to deal with this are you?"

"Not really," the administrator replied.

"What about the confidential line?"

"The confidential line?"

"Yeah, Speak Out."

"Oh, I'll get that for you now," he said. "It's 1800 848902."

He dialled the number straight away and was greeted by an automated recording.

"Thank you for calling the GAA confidential line. Please note all our calls are recorded for quality and training purposes. Please hold and someone will be with you shortly."

He was put through to a woman with a Cork accent.

"Is that Speak Out?"

"Yes."

"I want to make a complaint," he said. "I have taken a defamation case against the chairman of my local GAA club. He has apologised publicly and a substantial sum by way of compensation has been paid. The Dublin County Board and the National Children's Welfare Officer have a substantial file on the case. What I want now is for disciplinary action to be taken against the chairman in accordance with section 6.6 [of the GAA's Guidelines for Dealing with Allegations of Abuse]."

The woman made some notes and promised "someone would be in touch".

Two weeks later, he was sitting in his cab at lunchtime when he took a call from a man who introduced himself as Tom Ryan from the GAA. They spoke briefly about his complaint and the man promised to get back to him within a couple of days.

The Driver had never heard of Tom Ryan before and was intrigued when he made some enquiries.

How had a complaint about a club chairman landed on the desk of the director of finance (and soon-to-be Ard Stiurthoir) of the GAA?

* * * * *

The Driver's favourite item of clothing is a blue Dublin tracksuit. He grew up in a northside suburb of the city, played football and hurling for the local club and moved out to Balbriggan in the late '90s when he met his wife. It was a given that their two sons would join O'Dwyer's - the home of Gaelic games in the town since 1918 and best known for its favourite son, the 1995 All-Ireland winning captain John O'Leary.

The Driver's first contact with the club was a skills camp in 2008 and he started coaching the under 8s football and hurling teams a year later.

In August 2010 he was mentoring the footballers in a friendly against Bettystown. They were losing at half-time and one of the boys - a son of an assistant coach - threw a tantrum on the pitch and started stamping his feet. The second half was about to begin but the boy was still hysterical. "He's obstructing the game," the Driver said. "You're going to have to take him off."

"I can't go near him," the father replied. "He'll go berserk."

"Okay, I'll do it."

The boy was still digging his heels when the Driver approached: "If you're going to cry you have to come off," he said, gently.

"NO . . . NOOO!"

The other kids had run on and the ref wanted to get started. He lifted the boy to the side of the pitch and the game resumed.

"Five minutes later he came running over to his da and I put him back on," the Driver says. "He apologised after the game and we shook hands. 'No problem,' I said. 'See you next week.' And that was it. (The kid) continued to play and has (played) since."

Things were pretty good in the months that followed. Dublin won two All-Irelands and his sons were progressing well but there was some sniping and pettiness with another mentor at the club that was starting to grate on him. One night, in November 2013, the O'Dwyer's club chairman, Liam Howley, called to his home and asked him to reconsider a decision he had made to leave.

"I'd had no real arguments with Howley," he says. "The issues I'd had were with (another coach) and the way he was treating some of the kids."

He took a year out and returned in December 2014 to coach the under 13 hurling team. In February, a trip to Parnell Park was organised to watch Dublin play Tipperary in the National League and a week later they held Cuala to a draw in their first game of the season - the start of an unbeaten run that would endure until October.

It was the first time in the history of the club that O'Dwyer's had won a hurling league but the response was curious. There was no recognition for the kids on the O'Dwyer's website or Facebook page, and when the coach was invited to meet the chairman in December he was presented not with a garland, but with a list of faults:

He had encouraged children to give preference to hurling over football. He had organised training sessions on Saturdays - traditionally a football day. He had been late taking his team off the pitch one night after a training session, delaying the start of a competitive game. He had allowed parents to provide drinks and sandwiches for a celebration, and promoted the notion that the club were remiss for not doing the same. He had missed a training session one night and not paid his annual sub.

He was dismissed.

A week later, he sent Howley a letter:

"I am writing to you in relation to the meeting I attended, at your request, on Thursday 17th December 2015. Before attending the meeting, I was completely unaware of the serious subject of the meeting, that is, my dismissal as coach of the O'Dwyer's under 13s hurling team.

"Had I been aware of the above, I would have sought to bring a second party, such as another coach, to attend the meeting. I am shocked at my dismissal, particularly as our team was so successful this year. I also found the nature of the meeting where I was on my own facing three senior members of the committee, to be extremely intimidating.

"I now write to you to seek your confirmation that I fully comprehensively understand the reasons you expressed for my dismissal."

But the only confirmation he received - an email from the club secretary, Paul Finn - was the bottom line:

"It is the right of O'Dwyer's GAA Club to decide who manages and coaches all of our teams. A number of incidents occurred over the past year that involved you (and) were brought to the attention of the Executive Committee. These incidents were outlined to you at the meeting on the 17th December.

"Nobody has doubted your coaching ability or commitment to the team, however, based on the incidents outlined to you the Executive Committee decided that you are not the best person to take this team forward and would like to thank you for your efforts over the last year."

A month later, on January 13, 2016, the parents of the (now) under 14 hurlers were invited to meet the club to discuss the new season. It was opened by the chairman, Liam Howley, and a new coaching team was unveiled but the parents were more interested in what had happened to the old coaching team.

Parent: "Before we go forward with any of this, the committee should at least explain why the (last coach was) dismissed?"

Chairman: "(The Driver) was dismissed by the committee."

Parent: "Why?"

Chairman: "Some of the committee members found him difficult to deal with."

Parent: "For what reason, given the success of the hurlers, was he dismissed?"

Chairman: "Two years ago he inappropriately laid his hands on a child."

Parent: "That statement is wholly inappropriate. It is disgraceful. You should be ashamed of yourself. You knocked on his door and asked him to come back to O'Dwyer's, so you clearly have no belief in the accusation you are now making."

Chairman: "How do you know that I knocked on his door?"

Parent: "He told me . . . Did you consult any of the parents about this?"

Chairman: "We have a committee to organise these matters. They don't consult with parents."

Parent: "What procedure did the committee use to dismiss the coaching staff for the hurlers?"

Chairman: "The committee voted on it."

Parent: "I'm asking you a simple question. What procedure did the committee use before making the decision to sack the most successful coaching team that club have had in years? For example, did you consult with the parents?"

Chairman: "We have a committee. We don't consult with parents."

Parent: "I am asking you as chairman of O'Dwyer's for the fourth time, what procedures did the committee use before dismissing this coaching team?"

Chairman: "They voted on it."

Parent: "Okay, you answered the question. There was no procedure."

Chairman: "Okay."

The Driver listened from the back of the room. He had been invited to the meeting not as the former coach but because his son played for the team. Chinese whispers had been flying around Balbriggan since Christmas.

Did you hear about (the Driver)?

He was thrown out of the club over a child issue?

What's going on at O'Dwyer's with the hurling team?

The coach bet up a child.

His wife had urged him to stay calm but Howley's comments had pushed him to the edge. He stood-up and fixed the chairman with a gaze: "I'm going to make sure you regret every word you've said."

* * * * *

Meet the Parent. For 15 months he has been compiling a dossier on some trends at O'Dwyer's:

Case A

A mother is watching from her car at an underage practice match as her son goes to ground and starts crying. She jumps from the car and comes running onto the field to check that he's okay.

"Did you see that?" she says, addressing the coach. "He was punched in the stomach!"

"No, that didn't happen" the coach replies.

"I saw it!" she says.

"It didn't happen," he insists.

But the strike is confirmed when she's walking back to her car. "I saw it," a woman on the sideline observes. "He was definitely punched."

Another night. She watches her son playing really well but he's upset when he returns to the car: "I scored more goals than anyone else and the coaches said well done to everyone but not to me."

"Don't worry," she says. "I'm sure they didn't mean it."

But she's not sure.

She requests a meeting with the club to discuss how her son is being treated. Her husband has written a document of complaint but the meeting ends in rancour. "I tried to read through the document but was continually interrupted," he says, "and everything I said was denied. They were not very interested in what I had to say and at no time was I asked for a copy of the complaint."

They send details of the complaint in a series of emails to senior GAA officials; one to Barry Mullane, the games promotions officer at O'Dwyer's.

No response.

Four to John Costello, the CEO of the Dublin County Board.

No response.

Four to Damien Murphy, the Juvenile Dublin County Secretary.

No response.

Two to John Larkin, the Juvenile Dublin County Chairperson.

One response. (It's not his area.)

Two to Aileen Connolly, the Dublin County Children's Officer

No response.

Their son leaves the club and joins Fingallians.

Case B

The mother of a young footballer and his coach are arguing on the sideline. It's no big deal. There's nothing to see here. It's how the coach likes to do business. "If there are issues let me know and we won't have a problem," he had said. There are some issues. She lets him know. He doesn't take it very well. And now there's a problem.

It is perhaps just a coincidence that her son is no longer deemed worthy of the 'Player of the Week' award. It is perhaps just a coincidence that while other kids are being greeted like the Messiah her boy is being ignored.

The mother writes a letter to the O'Dwyer's games promotions officer and arranges to meet the club's child welfare officer to discuss how her son has been treated. The meeting is cancelled by text an hour before they are scheduled to sit down. She then receives a letter from the club secretary:

"The Executive Committee followed the GAA Code of Behaviour guidelines and passed your letter to the Children's Officers of the Club for consideration. It is their decision that this is not a child welfare issue. The Executive Committee supports their decision."

The mother makes several attempts to contact Aileen Connolly, the Dublin County Board children's officer but there is no response. Her son leaves the club and joins Fingallians.

Case C

Three months after they became the first team to win a hurling league for the club, 15 boys have withdrawn from the O'Dwyer's under 14s. Seven have written letters to the County Board:

"Hi, my name is *****. I am 12 years old. My coaches voted me the most improved player of the year. Last year we went unbeaten and won our league. This year my two coaches got sacked by the club and I have no team to play with.

"I love hurling and I don't know what to do. I'm annoyed at the club because I played under (the Driver and his assistant) for eight years. My Dad says I'm not allowed to transfer to a new club. The people who sacked my coaches are a bunch of shams and have never seen us play. Can you please talk to them and tell them to make the club better?"

The county board are talking to the club. The club are sending letters to their parents:

"Following our last communication on the 27th January, we are writing to provide additional information in respect of the changes to the coach of the Under 14 Hurling Team . . . We have now consulted the County Board on this matter, outlining our processes, our reasons, actions and the outcome, and following their complete support we remain steadfast in our decision.

"We are aware that it is difficult for you, as parents, to know why this was our decision, given that we are unable to share with you any information which necessitated both our action and our decision but we can tell you that while the causes are not large in content they are large in importance.

"However, all details of our decision were disclosed in full to (the Driver), and we can assure you that no 'character assassination' occurred; he was simply requested not to coach this year and the reasons for this request were given to him. He has not been asked to leave the club, nor has his son and it was (the assistant coach's) own choice to step down."

The kids have been training with the Driver at St Pat's in Stamullen - a 10-minute drive across the border in Co Meath. O'Dwyer's don't want the kids training with the Driver. O'Dwyer's don't want the kids playing in Co Meath. O'Dwyer's complain to the Meath County Board and the sessions are cancelled until the kids secure transfers. But O'Dwyer's are blocking the transfers.

The Parent was starting to despair until he turned on the radio one morning, Today with Sean O'Rourke, and heard a guy from the GAA making a lot of sense: "We must remember - particularly when we are talking about young people - that we are developing them not just as players but as people that will go out in society," Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl told O'Rourke. "And if they learn something good that's developmental . . . they will transfer that in later life as well."

Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl is the national children's officer at the GAA. The Parent sent him a letter by email:

Gearoid a Chara,

I determined to attempt to get in touch with you after hearing your interview on RTE . . . I thought you sounded very sincere on the issue . . . I believe that two of my children and my wife have been extremely badly treated by members of the O'Dwyer's GAA Club . . . I believe that I can clearly demonstrate that such behaviour by O'Dwyer's has become endemic within that club and that this behaviour has seriously negatively impacted on numerous children, parents, coaches and members not to mention Gaelic Games in the area.

I further believe that this appalling culture has been allowed to fester within O'Dwyer's club due to the apparent total indifference of the Dublin GAA County Board. I've attached numerous complaints from people to the County Board. You will note that in the vast majority of cases the parents complaints have, to date, been totally ignored to the extent that in most cases the parents never even received an acknowledgement that their complaint had been received.

Yet on 14th February 2016, the O'Dwyer's secretary sent an email to parents claiming that O'Dwyer's had the complete support of the County Board in this matter. My concerns therefore are twofold: (1) Numerous issues with O'Dwyer's . . . (2) The almost total apparent indifference to these issues, when parents have made complaints to the County Board.

Our children just want to play Gaelic Games. I request that the Office of the National Juvenile Officer step-in and assist us, or at least listen to us and give us some advice. I fully realise there are numerous complex issues involved in all of this. For the sake of our children, I would very much like to meet with you as soon as possible to see if some arrangement can be made to allow our children to continue with their love of playing Gaelic Games.

Is Mise . . .

A few hours later, ó Maoilmhichíl replied:

(The Parent) a chara,

I have had a number of complaints regarding certain alleged conduct in the O'Dwyer's Club of late that has been brought to my attention and also that of the Dublin County Board offices. Following enquiries with the County Board I was informed that a meeting with the Club was due to take place last week to discuss the concerns brought to our attention.

When I receive an update from them regarding that meeting I will revert to you on the contents of your correspondence and see if the matters raised by you and others were addressed at the meeting and what next steps have been agreed between the Club and the County Board.

Le dea mhein . . .

It was progress . . . of sorts.

* * * * *

Things were complicated for the Driver in the months that followed his dismissal. His son had played some trials for a Dublin development team and looked set for selection until a call from Colm Burtchaell, the Dublin Hurling Development Officer. "I can't put him on the panel," Burtchaell announced. "He's not playing for a club - it's in the rules."

The Driver protested but Burtchaell's hands were tied: "Call John Costello," he said.

As luck would have it, Costello had visited O'Dwyer's a day before and been briefed on the problem - the Driver was a troublemaker holding the club to ransom by getting parents to withdraw their kids. He had no idea about the back story and seemed surprised when the Driver informed him he was suing Howley for defamation.

He asked if the Driver had a police record. The Driver was appalled: "I have no such thing," he replied. "What do you take me for?" A day later he called with good news. The boy was on the panel.

Liam Howley's solicitor had also been in touch. Having conceded that their client's words were inappropriate, and Howley's regret that the matter had been raised, they had a settlement proposal:

The club would assist the Driver's son with a transfer to another club.

They would make a contribution of €1,750 to the Driver's legal fees.

The club would make a payment of €2,500 to the Driver as compensation.

Liam Howley would read out an apology at a meeting of the club executive and at a club juvenile meeting.

The Driver was amenable, but instructed his solicitor to clarify one point: "His issue is with Liam Howley personally, it is not with the club. He is very conscious of the fact that like most sports clubs in Ireland, funds are very hard to come by and he is very reluctant to accept money from the club when the problem was created by Mr Howley personally.

"Your letter however states that the proposed payment of €2,500 will come from the club. Will you please confirm whether or not any of the money, whether compensation or costs, will come from Mr Howley personally."

A week later Howley's solicitor confirmed that the club was paying everything. On September 27, 2016, the Driver issued proceedings; they were going to court.

John Costello wasn't the only member of the Dublin County Board to visit O'Dwyer's that summer. Aileen Connolly, the children's officer, and her colleague Eimear Dignam had both paid a visit and they were followed on May 19 by Gearóid ó Maoilmhichíl, who had agreed to conduct an 'informal enquiry'.

His report, a month later, was short on sanctions or reform. He said that "it is a responsibility of the Club to carry out any initial enquiries" into any complaints. And although the communication was poor the club was "within its rights to re-appoint or not re-appoint any current or previous mentor or manager to an underage team".

The parents weren't happy and responded with a letter:

"(We've) now gone through all three levels of the GAA. Local, County and National. You have now concluded your report. All involved are GAA people. Yet, not one GAA official at any level would agree to meet with any of us. However, the very people we complained about were afforded multiple opportunities to present their arguments or excuses.

"So what are the procedures of the GAA for dealing with complaints above club level? We know that there are procedures laid out for clubs. But what happens when the club ignores them . . .

"What procedures are there for complaints at County level? What procedures are there for complaints at National level? Are there any? If there are, why were they not made available?"

* * * * *

It was shortly after 8pm at the O'Dwyer's clubhouse on Hamlet Lane in Balbriggan when Liam Howley rose from his chair. The date was Thursday, January 11, 2018 and around 60 people had gathered for the O'Dwyer's AGM. It had been a troublesome time for the chairman but his case against the Driver had been settled a month before and with the reading of an apology he would be free to press on.

"The first thing I would ask everybody is to put away your mobile phone," he announced. "Turn it off. Put it in your handbag or your coat. No phones out please."

There was some grumbling.

"Why?" someone asked.

"Because they're the rules of the club, okay?" Howley replied.

It was not okay.

"And it's the rules of this AGM, and we call it," he insisted. "Okay?"

There were more grumbles.

"Before I start the meeting, I've been advised to read out a statement:

"A meeting took place on the 13th of January 2016 involving the parents of the Under 14 Hurling team, a number of club representatives, and members of the Hurling team itself.

"During the course of that meeting I used words that were interpreted as meaning that (the Driver) had inappropriately laid his hand on a child. I accept that the words I used were incorrect. I accept that (the Driver) asked the player involved to leave the pitch, and that he then lifted the child off the pitch in the presence of the child's father.

"I wish to apologise to (the Driver) and his family for any hurt or offence. As evidence of such, O'Dwyer's has discharged (the Driver's) legal fees, and O'Dwyer's have paid an agreed sum to him in compensation."

He paused and surveyed the room.

"Emm . . . as much as I would like to discuss this matter with you I have a further statement to make . . . Emm . . . because of a confidentiality clause entered into between O'Dwyer's GAA, our solicitors, McGowan, and Croke Park, we cannot discuss this matter any further. And I will ask you to stick with me on that one. Thank you."

The Parent was sitting in the audience, two rows back. He had been nominated by the Driver to verify the apology and had raised a hand in protest: "Sorry, before you go any further, Liam . . ."

"You've no talk in here," Howley replied. "You're not a member."

"You didn't read out what was agreed in court," the Parent insisted. "(The Driver) did not sue O'Dwyer's - he sued you. He didn't sue the club, he sued you. That wasn't what was agreed."

"I'm not entering into any more conversation with you," Howley snapped. "If you don't like what was read, out that door!"

"I'm going out that door now."

"Okay, that's fine."

"But you did not read what was agreed. It was a breach of the terms of the settlement . . ."

"You either go out that door or shut up."

The Parent exited the clubhouse and stood for a moment in the cold night air trying to process what had been said. Howley had clearly breached the terms of the settlement. And the notion that he had struck some sort of a confidentiality agreement with the GAA was just laughable.

Why would Croke Park get involved?

The following afternoon, the Driver phoned Speak Out.

A cheque for twenty grand - the award for his damages and costs - had arrived a day before and was paid, not by Howley, but a company called Garwyn Ireland Limited for Cumann Luthchleas Gael.

The Driver spoke again to Tom Ryan about his complaint against Liam Howley's breach of GAA rules. But Ryan spoke of a 'loophole' and said that his 'hands were tied'.

On February 21, 2018, he sent Ryan an email:

"Thank you for looking into the matter that I brought to the attention of Speak Out and for taking the time to call me back . . . As I have explained before, I want disciplinary action to be taken by the GAA against Mr Howley in accordance with section 6.6 of the constitution: 'The making of a false allegation by a member of the GAA shall be deemed to be a serious breach of the GAA Code of Best Practice in Youth Sport. Any allegation made, which is subsequently found to be false or of a malicious nature, shall also be deemed to be a serious breach of these Guidelines and subsequent disciplinary action may follow.'

"Clearly, the extremely serious allegation levelled against me by Mr Howley was both false and malicious . . . In relation to our previous conversation, I can in no way see how getting 'elected in the proper manner' as Chairman of O'Dwyer's GAA Club, grants Mr Howley immunity from this clause (or any other) of the Constitution of the GAA.

"I acknowledge that you put this down to a 'loophole in the rules' and I absolutely accept your sincerity so, what is this loophole, or more importantly where is it? Have I missed it in the Constitution or is it in some other document?"

Five days later, Ryan replied:

"There is actually nothing in the rules preventing somebody for standing for office, irrespective of any civil law cases he/she might have been a party to. Despite how I termed it, that's not really a loophole - it's just a fact.

"To be clear though, I didn't actually decide that. Or make a decision on anything. That's just the position. If you do want to make a complaint against a member then in my opinion the way to initiate that is with the club.

"With that in mind I know you'll understand if I don't comment at all on the issue itself, or on the details and facts you sent me. It's best that I don't express any view on that."

But the Driver did not understand.

Who are Speak Out?

Why did Tom Ryan call?

Who paid for Liam Howley?

None of it made sense to him.

Last Wednesday, a call from the Sunday Independent to Tom Ryan in Croke Park was answered by his secretary. The Ard Stiurthoir was in meetings all day and she suggested we contact the communications department. We explained that we needed to speak to Ryan, not the communications department. She took a number and said she would pass it on.

Alan Milton, the director of communications, called later that afternoon and enquired about our story. "It's about how you spend your money," I explained.

"When would you need to speak to him?" he asked.

"I could pop up anytime tomorrow or Friday morning."

On Thursday afternoon, we left a message on Ryan's voicemail and sent an email: "Tom, I'm hoping you might help me join some dots with a story I'm writing at the weekend. I spoke to your office yesterday, and to Alan Milton, and have just left a message on your office line. I'm sure you're busy but if you could spare five minutes I'd appreciate it."

A couple of hours later, Milton called John Greene, the sports editor, explaining that they had a structure in place for media queries and asking again what our story was about. "It's about O'Dwyer's," Greene said.

On Thursday evening Milton sent a text: "We are looking into that issue overnight and I'll revert in the morning as early as possible."

As early as possible was another text at 12.33 on Friday afternoon: "Paul, we looked into this in detail. It was brought to our attention on a confidential basis and to that end we are precluded from commenting publicly. Sorry I can't be of more help."

We sent a reply: "Alan, you might pay me the courtesy of allowing me to ask my questions before declining to comment. We also dispute that this is a confidential matter."

He called 30 minutes later but there was no change of position. "Tom would love to talk to you," he insisted, "but it was brought to him on a confidential basis."

Liam Howley declined to comment when contacted on Friday.

"Can I just ask a couple of short questions?"

"You can ask but I'm not answering."

"You settled the case with (the Driver)? You're not arguing that?"

"Fine."

"Do you accept that the version of the apology you read at the AGM wasn't the version that was agreed at the Circuit Court?"

"I have no comment on all that."

"Who actually paid for the settlement?"

"No, no, thanks very much." And he was gone.

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