Sunday 22 April 2018

Athletics: ISC's new directors face old dilemmas

When Martin Cullen, the minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, appointed seven new directors to the board of the Irish Sports Council last September, he created an expectation of change. The new directors -- including Susan Ahern, the International Rugby Board's head of legal affairs, Jim Glennon, the former TD and Eamonn Coghlan -- brought fresh faces, fresh insight and no historical baggage. This week they face a series of decisions that will determine whether the new board is going to have an impact on how the ISC operates.

Their first challenges stem from the bitter and long-running dispute between the ISC, Athletics Ireland and Mary Coghlan, its former chief executive. Coghlan was ousted from AI last year and her legal case against the ISC and AI comes to court in just three weeks.

It promises to be a bruising court case. Coghlan will claim that the ISC interfered with her contract of employment and that her employers at AI defamed her and broke her contract. It may sound like a run-of-the-mill action by a sacked and aggrieved employee, but it is far more than that. When it comes to court, it will provide fascinating insights on the level of control that the ISC exerts on the sporting organisations which it funds. AI had its funding withheld until Coghlan, appointed unanimously by the AI board, was sacked. Or, as Ossie Kilkenny, the ISC chairman, allegedly said, until AI had removed the "cancer" from within the organisation.

Mary Coghlan's case, while explosive, is not the only legal headache facing the ISC directors. It has spawned two separate cases that each carries embarrassment potential for Kilkenny, the ISC and John Treacy, its chief executive.

One is of the ISC's own making, as it has threatened action against Diarmuid Ryan, a human resources consultant who was employed by AI when it was trying to recruit a High Performance director. The other is a libel action being taken by Gerry Giblin, a director of AI, against Kilkenny. Giblin claims he was libelled when Kilkenny sent a letter to Cullen on behalf of the ISC, containing allegations that had been made against Giblin by Pierce O'Callaghan. Those allegations are the subject of yet another action -- Giblin has already lodged a plenary summons for libel against O'Callaghan with the High Court.

The core issues for the new directors, however, are not the messiness of the Coghlan affair and its potentially embarrassing legal consequences, but the level of direct involvement that the ISC takes with the sports that it funds. Does the ISC exist to micro-manage Irish sport, or to facilitate sports to manage themselves? The question is not academic: on the table this week will be the latest round of grants for Ireland's elite athletes -- the so-called carding scheme. Why does the ISC involve itself in the selection of individual athletes? The logical approach would be for the sports organisations themselves to decide on which athletes get funding, based on strict qualifying criteria laid down by the ISC. Instead, the ISC will become an expert in all sporting disciplines and will determine who gets what. If athletes feel they have been dealt a bad card, they argue their case directly with the ISC, not their own organisation.

The suspicion that cannot be erased is that the ISC's approach under Treacy and Kilkenny, whose time as chairman expires this summer, is all about control of those sports that are not self-funding.

Part of the Mary Coghlan dispute revolved around the appointment of a High Performance director for athletics and the involvement of the ISC in that process. It is hard to imagine that the ISC would have had a role in the appointment of Declan Kidney as Ireland's rugby coach, or Giovanni Trapattoni as soccer manager: it provides funding to both organisations, but not critical funding. So what are the boundaries? Is it the case that the ISC can exert direct control over organisations that rely on its money, but has different rules for those that make their own? And different rules, too, when it suits: John Foley, AI's new chief executive, was appointed without the tedium of a competitive selection process. He is undoubtedly a good appointment, but he, his employers and the ISC are weakened by the manner of that appointment.

The board's concern is not micro-management -- sweating over which athletes get grants or who runs individual high-performance programmes or who sports organisations choose as their chief executives. It needs to focus the ISC on good governance, good processes and it needs to redouble its efforts to increase participation in all sports.

Troubling, therefore, to hear suggestions that the Irish Sports Monitor, which provides critical evidence on participation levels, may not be funded in 2010. It will be an inauspicious start for the new board if its walks into legal actions, drops the search for evidence and rubber-stamps a carding scheme that strips sports organisations of responsibility for their own elite athletes.

The first step at Tuesday's board meeting should be to put a sub-committee in charge of the legal actions and exclude both Treacy and Kilkenny from any involvement in their resolution. The second should be a guarantee that the funding will be found for the continued publication of the Sports Monitor. If they can do that, then the expectation of change will start to be fulfilled.

Sunday Independent

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