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What can Irish boxing do to pull itself up off the canvas?

Andrew Lynch

With a key figure walking away and ministers condemning ‘internal squabbling’, the IABA needs to get its act together – but with so many competing interests slugging it out, is reform possible?


Billy Walsh

Billy Walsh

Bernard Dunne

Bernard Dunne


Billy Walsh

So at the end of a week when Irish boxers did us proud at the Women’s World Championships in Istanbul, why does the sport itself appear to be on the ropes?

Because many people who would normally be in the Irish Athletic Boxing Association’s (IABA) corner are throwing jabs at it instead.

Sports Minister Jack Chambers certainly did not pull any punches last Monday over the organisation’s “internal squabbling” and failure to prevent its High Performance Unit (HPU) director Bernard Dunne from resigning.

Calling this episode “frankly a disgrace”, Chambers warned the IABA will suffer “severe financial consequences” if it does not implement an independent report’s recommendations within three months.

Why did Bernard Dunne walk away?

Essentially, the former world super bantamweight champion felt he was being undermined by his own colleagues. In February last year, an anonymous memo began circulating with a Swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of his performance.

“Irish boxing needs a person with a different personality, profile and the right skill set,” it concluded. “Otherwise [it] will decline further.”

A few months later, Ireland’s boxers delivered a gold ( Kellie Harrington) and a bronze (Aidan Walsh) medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Dunne then lodged a complaint, naming two IABA board members he believes helped draft the document.

When a proposed hearing into the matter was postponed, he quit earlier this month.

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“I would like to see him change his mind,” Harrington herself tweeted in response.

“But it’s hard when you’re not allowed to do your job the way it should be done.”

Surely there’s more to this crisis than one man’s position?

Yes. In fact, Dunne is the third successive HPU director to leave under controversial circumstances since the post was created by Gary Keegan in 2003.

At a time when fighters had to sleep on blow-up beds at the National Stadium to cut costs, Keegan and his successor Billy Walsh created a “no excuses” culture that promised knockout results.

On one level the HPU has been a great success, securing nine Olympic medals for Ireland.

However, it has been dogged by constant rows with the IABA’s board of directors and central council over who should get to pick international teams.

Last October, for example, Ireland sent seven athletes to the World Championships in Belgrade against Dunne’s wishes. All but one lost their first bout.

So Dunne and his predecessors felt like they were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs?

Exactly. “They gave me a contract that was impossible, [with] so many restrictions on it,” Billy Walsh told RTÉ radio last Tuesday.

He has previously said that he “spent lots of nights crying on my own,” before leaving in 2015 to coach Team USA instead.

Now Walsh believes the IABA needs “a good clear out” because “you’ve got a professional unit working within an amateur organisation. People are living in the past, [saying] ‘this is how we we’ve always done it’… they’re not up to today’s governance practices.”

What sort of reforms do the IABA’s critics want?

They’re all laid out in a recent review by the high performance expert Brian MacNeice, which contains 63 recommendations.

The key one is to create a new board of directors with 12 members, half of them independently appointed.

It would include a representative from each provincial council, a qualified coach and a former Olympian.

MacNeice also suggests that the central council (which runs things on a day-to-day basis) is far too big and should be shrunk from 37 members to 15.

All this is expected to go down badly with some people in Ireland’s boxing community, who feel that the IABA leadership has already become too detached from grassroots’ concerns.

The debate will be thrashed out at an extraordinary general meeting of the IABA next month (the date and venue are not yet confirmed). A national ballot of members is likely to take place shortly afterwards.

What might happen if the IABA rejects these proposals?

Quite simply, their money supply could dry up.

Earlier this month, Sport Ireland announced a €14.2m package to help athletes who are hoping to compete at the Paris Olympics in 2024. Boxers were not included, however, and funding for the IABA won’t be confirmed until it has sorted out its current problems.

The organisation is heavily reliant on State support and some of its premises are already in a desperate state.

At Corinthians in Summerhill (where Kellie Harrington discovered her talent), for example, local builder Joe Carabini has just launched a GoFundMe online campaign to raise €30,000 because it has no female bathroom.

“The girls have to use the boys’ toilets, which means somebody has to stand guard at the door for them,” Carabini says. “It’s a terrible situation.”

Why is creating a healthy boxing scene so important for Irish society as a whole?

Because despite the involvement of suspected gangsters such as Daniel Kinahan, boxing is a hugely democratic sport where people from any background can succeed.

It’s no coincidence that Travellers and ethnic minorities are strongly represented in the IABA’s 360 affiliated clubs, many run by public-spirited volunteers who want to help their communities.

“Boxing clubs are rarely in fashionable places or areas where there’s a lot of money, but they’re highly respected for the work they do,” says the former Republic of Ireland soccer manager Brian Kerr, whose father Frankie was a six-time national champion.

“That’s because of the [coaches’] inclusive nature and basic decency,” Kerr told the podcast Shadow Boxing.

“They might produce the odd champion, but they’re more appreciated by the community because, for example, they take in kids who might struggle with the discipline involved in team sports.”

Finally, what does the IABA itself say about how it plans to get up off the canvas?

For now, it’s taking all criticisms on the chin. “The minister’s comments will serve to focus minds on the gravity of the choice,” the IABA said in a statement last Tuesday, adding that it is “acutely aware of the need for reform”. It has called that anonymous memo about Bernard Dunne “appalling” and asked him to reconsider his resignation.

However, it also warns that “a small cohort of the Irish boxing family” remains unhappy with the HPU and will resist giving it more power when a ballot is called.

“Nothing ever runs smoothly in Irish boxing,” Kellie Harrington said last month, a candidate for understatement of the year.

With so many competing interests now slugging it out, this particular bout looks set to go the distance.

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