Saturday 18 November 2017

Gloves off as shock gives way to anger

Nobody is backing down in the Billy Walsh saga, so action needed now to prevent more damage

Billy Walsh denied that the dispute had anything to do with money
Billy Walsh denied that the dispute had anything to do with money
John Greene

John Greene

We have been down this road before - and it never ends well, at least not for Irish sport. Billy Walsh has left the services of Irish boxing and after a week of near hysterical reaction to his departure, we are not altogether sure why it has come to this.

The narrative, at least until Friday, had been straightforward: this was a monumental cock-up by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, who were accused of chasing the most successful coach in Irish sporting history out of the country. It was an easy story to tell, convincing because in the past the IABA has not always seen eye to eye with their head coach, and everybody ran with it.

The IABA were on the run, the hunted were in hiding. Come out, come out, wherever you are.

And on Friday, they came out; on Pat Kenny's programme on Newstalk the association's chairman Joe Christle gave a passable impression of being an entirely normal and sane person. Where were the ogres? Where were the fools? Christle is a barrister and, as he demonstrated, no fool, which he again proved on Seán O'Rourke's Radio 1 show, and on RTé news. And all of a sudden, the week's narrative was in trouble.

There is a lot about what happened last week that doesn't make sense. There are many pieces of the jigsaw missing and this is troubling - even after a week of statements and counter-statements. We must allow for several factors common in disputes like this - each side will believe what it wants to believe, each side will be convinced that it did all it could, each side is convinced that its recollection and interpretation of events is accurate and each side will believe it acted in good faith at all times. Issues around perception and communication can be critical.

But what's unusual about this rift is that there are three parties: the IABA, Sport Ireland and Billy Walsh, even if the latter two were ostensibly on the same side. The IABA is adamant it did all it could to keep their man. Billy Walsh and Sport Ireland are adamant that they didn't. Walsh reiterated this again yesterday. "I firmly believe that they had no intention or desire to engage me into the future," he said. "I believe they did not want me to stay. I was left with no alternative but to resign."

A senior source in the association told the Sunday Independent that they did not want Walsh to leave. He said they were not foolish enough to think that Irish boxing would be better off without him than with him. He also reiterated what Christle said in his interviews on Friday - that they were convinced they had agreed a deal with Walsh and that his resignation last Monday came as a complete bombshell. There had been reason to believe he was staying; that had been the feeling in the association during the World Championships in Doha, while minor housekeeping matters which he had taken an interest in in the last few weeks did not point to a man on the precipice.

Billy Walsh yesterday repeated his position that this dispute was not about money. "For ultimate clarity, I want it on the record that I did not resign from the IABA because of money," he said. "Of course I wanted better financial terms. However, it was the non-financial and practical working terms that were the deciding factor in my decision to resign."

It's understood the offer on the table to stay was between €110,000 and €120,000 a year over the course of a fixed-term contract lasting three years. Because his status was changing from being a member of the IABA staff to a contracted worker (this was to facilitate Sport Ireland's new financial input to his salary) he was also due a severance payment of over €100,000.

Boxing is not just Billy Walsh's sport, it's also his livelihood. If he were in any other business, and a rival company came in and offered him better terms and conditions, and let's face it a better quality of life, there would not be many faulting him for taking it. So, if this played a part in his departure then we should wish him well, thank him for his services and hopefully welcome him back in the future if the occasion arises.

The next troubling aspect, however, is the reaction of the newly-formed Sport Ireland, which, despite being a merging of the Irish Sports Council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority, bears a startling resemblance to the old Irish Sports Council.

Experienced observers were taken aback with Kieran Mulvey on Prime Time last Tuesday. Mulvey, the chairman of Sport Ireland, is a hugely respected figure across Irish life. He is known for his skill and patience in dealing with difficult situations; he has sat through the night mediating in difficult disputes between warring parties from all walks of life, brokering the most unlikely of deals in the face of considerable adversity; he almost rescued the Garth Brooks concerts in Croke Park last year. He is a personable man, who seeks to wear his responsibilities lightly. He was appointed to the sports council as chairman in the first place to bring an end to the kind of disputes that had left elements of Irish sport stuck in the dark ages. Yet here he was on national television, angrier than we had ever seen him in public before, issuing stark warnings to a sporting body.

And John Treacy, the chief executive of Sport Ireland, is not a man known for courting publicity, certainly not of the controversial kind. Yet he too was out front and centre, leading the charge on the IABA. What had so angered these two men so much?

On Wednesday, Mulvey was even more forceful as he faced an Oireachtas committee. The meeting had been arranged to sign off on his appointment as chairman of Sport Ireland, but inevitably the controversy erupted again.

This is a flavour of his remarks: "The IABA for all practical purposes is almost totally funded by the State. It is not my intention and it will never be the intention of the board to go hurt the athletes, the boxers, the coaches. All of them can get a guarantee from me here this morning that they will not be touched. They will be the best financial support that we can do. My concern is that portion of the grant that is given to the IABA for central headquarter administration.

"I am putting that marker down now and I hope I will be supported on this. We will review that for the 2016 funding round until we are assured that everything that is required on transparency and corporate governance is to our satisfaction. It's not today or yesterday that this arose. It's not working properly and it needs to be fixed.

"The IABA didn't hear anything from me last night that they haven't heard me say across the table to them. They allowed this to drift. They said they were in negotiations and then legal people from both sides got involved. I just know for a fact that anybody who has dealt with the IABA in these negotiations, be they human resource consultants or legal, have found it the most frustrating experience they've ever experienced. And it mirrors my own.

"Do they want him or do they not? And it appears to me that they don't. To allow this poker game to go to the ultimate. The president of the IABA told the minister for sport last weekend that this would be sorted out, it would be alright, that it would be done. And what do we find on Monday morning? It's not done. It was nothing to do with financials, that was all thrashed out and paid for by the Sports Council. It was all the other indignities that were added."

By that afternoon, senior figures in the IABA were in shock at the scale of the attack it was under. It's worth asking if the new Sport Ireland board - which has to yet have its first meeting - approved of the public comments? At any rate, for 24 hours, there was a mixture of fear and anger in the senior ranks of the association, while those closely involved with the high performance programme also began to fear for their futures, particularly after references to the Great Britain system of operating a HP unit outside the remit of the sport. The loss of their top coach was now becoming something entirely different; there was a feeling that the entire sport was under threat.

It took a public intervention on Newstalk's Lunchtime programme on Thursday by Minister for Sport Michael Ring to calm nerves in the IABA. According to a source, they felt reassured by his pledge that funding to boxing was not under any threat. Privately, Ring is understood to have been frustrated and disappointed at the approach of Sport Ireland last week. Along with Mulvey and Treacy, he had worked hard in the background to broker a deal between Walsh and the IABA and he was centrally involved in negotiations between both sides in a pivotal meeting in Athlone last month.

Ring has been supportive of the IABA since he took office, awarding the association additional funding for the upgrading of facilities to the tune of €3m between 2011 and 2014. The association name-checked the minister several times on Friday.

The relationship between the governing body for Irish sport and its most successful member is now badly damaged. Let us put aside for now the fact that boxing must find a suitable replacement for Walsh - and if that ultimately proves to be the extremely highly regarded Zaur Antia then a replacement for him will need to be found - and look at the bigger picture. And that is this: Sport Ireland and the IABA need each other. Without boxing, Irish sport's international performance looks very second rate as high performance programmes in other sports are not delivering on anywhere near the same scale. This brings a whole new set of questions to the door of Sport Ireland. Without Sport Ireland, the IABA will not get the full support it needs to continue to succeed at major tournaments - with or without Billy Walsh.

Sure, his departure is a blow but this is part and parcel of life at the top end of high-level, international sport. Nobody wanted him to leave.

But this brings us to the next point of concern: Have Sport Ireland so little faith in the system which has continued to produce top-class boxers year after year that they are afraid that Walsh's departure will bring an end to Ireland's golden era in the sport?

The IABA says it has full confidence in its systems. According to one individual deeply involved in the sport, the HP unit could not succeed were it not for the ability of the association and its coaches and clubs to continuously produce fighters of a certain standard in the first place. It is the environment as much as the individual that breeds success.

Friday's response from the IABA to a week of attacks was unequivocal. Towards the end of a carefully-worded statement, the gloves came off: "The IABA was shocked by the very public attack on it and on Irish boxing, by the chairman and CEO of Sport Ireland. An attack that was totally disingenuous and plainly part of a campaign by a statutory body to exercise control over the IABA's High Performance Unit. This, we believe, is yet another clear example of Sport Ireland's officials seeking to go beyond their authority and its statutory mandate and act ultra vires their statutory power or remit. The agency has a track record and form in this regard and has paid dearly for it in the past." The IABA went on to effectively demand an apology.

The use of the phrase ultra vires is hardly a coincidence. The sports council has twice found itself in hot water in the High Court over claims it had acted ultra vires, beyond its powers. They were costly outings for the taxpayer and the last thing Irish sport needs in the final year of an Olympic cycle - or in any year for that matter - is another major rift with one of its key stakeholders. Take away boxing from Rio and what's left? Perhaps Sport Ireland knows this, hence the desperation around Walsh's departure.

Sport Ireland's remit is clear: it cannot interfere in the day-to-day running of sporting bodies, or seek to unduly influence appointments. Nor can it use funding as a stick to beat associations with. Sport Ireland, however, is entitled to expect the highest standards of corporate governance and to insist that taxpayers' money is properly spent.

The issue here is that the IABA is adamant that there have been no concerns raised over its governance - a source said he was "stunned" to hear its governance being questioned publicly as he was not aware of any issue having been raised - and the claim before the Oireachtas last week that "it's not today or yesterday this arose" is said to have come out of the blue to the association.

On Wednesday, Sport Ireland and the IABA will appear before an Oireachtas committee. There is no indication from either side that they will be backing down. On Friday afternoon, 12 minutes after Sport Ireland issued a short, tense response to the IABA's statements, Michael Ring intervened again, calling for "cool heads from all parties".

He added: "All involved here are sorry to see Billy leave for the US and while this situation has caused passions to run high, now is the time to redirect that passion in the interest of the future of the sport. We must focus our efforts on the week and months ahead and on how we can best support our athletes as they prepare for the Olympic Games in Rio next year.

"Nobody wanted Billy to leave but he is gone now and it is time for us to re-group and all work together. We can only do that if everyone takes a deep breath and cools down.

"There has been a lot of intense discussion over the last few days, primarily due to the love people have for the sport and their interest in its future.

"I am aware that Sport Ireland and the IABA have both put their positions on the record in recent days about what has happened. For the sake of Irish boxing, at all levels, I believe that everyone should now focus on what's ahead and what is best for our athletes. Adding fuel to the fire by continuing the discussion over the airwaves is not helpful at this point."

We have been here before and government failed to act but it's thought that Ring is anxious to work with both parties to prevent any further animosity taking root. However, as that is unlikely to happen this week, Wednesday's outing on Kildare Street could widen the rift further.

Both the IABA and Sport Ireland are answerable to the Oireachtas, so the hearing is valid in that sense. But is its timing wise? It's understood that the IABA will forcefully rebuff a lot of what has been said about them in the last week while Sport Ireland's representatives will also be holding firm on its position.

Shock has given way to anger. Having been on the ropes for days, the IABA is fighting back. The Sunday Independent understands that senior management received overwhelming support at a crunch meeting on Friday night. According to one source, boxing is "galvanised" now and, it seems, united.

We have been here before - but we have a chance to end this one differently.

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