Tuesday 20 March 2018

A tale of two state board short cuts

IN THE dying days of the last government there was what has been described as an orgy of appointments to state boards, with one report last week putting the figure at 182.

Many of the appointees were Fianna Fáil cronies -- supporters, local councillors and even former TDs -- and a number were appointed on the party's last day in office, March 8. That was the day when Mary Hanafin, as Minister for Sport, appointed a Fianna Fáil councillor and friend of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen to the board of the Irish Sports Council.

Danny Owens, a former county hurler who was on the Offaly team which won All-Ireland titles in 1981 and 1985, was given the seat vacated by the passing of Mick Spain in February.

Owens, who was also his party's director of elections in the Tullamore area, defended his appointment. "I'm involved in Offaly Sports Partnership for a number of years, I played hurling and coached for Offaly, so it's not like somebody coming to a board who has no real connection or any kind of experience -- I've a lot of it."

He is highly regarded, particularly for his work on the local sports partnership, and may prove a good choice, but the manner of his appointment typifies all that has been wrong with the way in which sport has been governed in this country. The sports council itself has had well documented governance issues -- but given the carry-on of recent sports ministers, it is not hard to conclude where it got its lead from.

When the new government took office, sweeping all before it with a new broom, one of its pledges was that the way in which people are appointed to state boards would be overhauled. Having been forced to give up its plan to overturn a raft of Fianna Fáil's last-ditch appointments -- which apparently are legally airtight -- the changes will instead apply to future choices, and will include advertising vacant positions.

Furthermore, prospective chairpersons of state boards will be interviewed by the relevant Oireachtas committee, although the appointment will still be finalised at Cabinet level.

Which is why last week's decision by the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney to appoint a Fine Gael party activist as chairman of Bord na gCon has led to some disquiet among industry figures.

Bord na gCon is another state agency which never seems to be too far from controversy. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General three years ago drew attention to management and governance issues over a ten-year period up to 2006. In more recent times there has been talk in industry circles over a number of alleged cheating incidents. One high profile incident centred on a 'ringer' winning a race in Dundalk in June 2009, a matter eventually referred by Bord na gCon to the Gardaí eight months later.

According to well placed sources, Coveney's unease about elements within the sport forced him to break with his party's new policy on state board appointments before the ink was even dry on the agreement between the coalition partners. It is understood that Coveney had to get a special cabinet exemption to appoint Phil Meaney to the position.

It is also understood that Coveney (pictured) was concerned that the lack of a chairman for nearly two months led to a vacuum at the head of the organisation. The former chairman Dick O'Sullivan retired in February.

Following a dinner meeting with Meaney, and after canvassing opinion from a range of interested parties, including Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins, whose family has a long-standing connection with the sport, he appointed Meaney last Tuesday after a week of speculation that the move was imminent.

The minister described Meaney, a native of Carlow, as "eminently well qualified for this appointment, given both his successful business background and his involvement in the greyhound industry over a period of 25 years, including his recently held position as chairman of the Kilkenny Greyhound Company Limited".

Coveney it seems sought to appoint someone familiar with the sport here and with the ability to "get a handle" on it -- with all its nuances -- quickly, according to a source.

Meaney, who was a director of elections for Phil Hogan, will still appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee, but his appointment is not in question.

While the new government in this instance can be accused of turning its back on its own policy, Meaney's appointment at least had some element of process. He and Owens at the sports council may both prove excellent choices, but the latter's position is hardly helped by the cloud of cronyism hanging over his appointment.

Sunday Indo Sport

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