Saturday 24 February 2018

Coghlan saga just refuses to go away

THE folly of failing to commission an independent report into the High Court case involving the Athletics Association of Ireland, its former chief executive Mary Coghlan and the Irish Sports Council was further highlighted last week.

Coghlan, it will be recalled, brought an action against AAI and the ISC after she was sacked, unfairly and without cause she claimed, from her CEO post. She accused the sports council of stepping outside its remit by putting pressure on her employer to dismiss her and the case was ultimately settled in her favour four days into evidence.

It was a costly saga for the two bodies, which were left to foot a hefty legal bill. They also suffered severe and lasting damage to their credibility.

For reasons perhaps best known to himself, then sports minister Martin Cullen sought a report into the whole affair from John Treacy, chief executive of the ISC, when an independent report appeared to be a better idea. The ISC, and its chief executive and then chairman Ossie Kilkenny, were central figures in the case, so asking Treacy to subsequently compile a report into it hardly made sense. The very nature of civil actions means that there are two sides, often with little common ground, and therefore asking -- or indeed expecting -- one side to be in a position to offer a balanced assessment of the matter is at best naive.

Treacy's report was delivered to the department on April 13 last, by which stage Mary Hanafin had succeeded Cullen in the sports portfolio. Last week, Hanafin (pictured) followed through on a promise to publish the report by making it available on her department's website, along with the transcripts from the four days of the High Court case.

Within hours of the report being published, however, Mary Coghlan made public her version of events, which had been in the minister's possession for several weeks but which she opted not to publish. "Based on the legal advice provided to me I do not intend to publish her [Coghlan's] response," said the minister. "I will be asking the incoming chairman of the ISC to consider the corporate governance issues raised by the report and in Ms Coghlan's reply and to provide assurances to me that best practice is exercised by the sports council in its dealings with its customers."

Yet it is difficult to understand how the minister felt that publishing one side's version of events -- especially when it is the side which, effectively, lost the case -- would not provoke a response from the other. And was it not entirely predictable that there would be inconsistencies in the two accounts?

In her report, Coghlan directly contradicts several key aspects of Treacy's report. Had this been an independent review, it is likely that both sides would now have some kind of closure to the whole affair. Instead, it drags on further and one suspects the minister has misjudged the entire situation.

There are several clear areas of difference between the two reports. Treacy, for example, says Coghlan "was determined to have her day in court (as she is entitled to do) and was not willing to settle the proceedings, other than for a sum well in excess of that which she ultimately received". Coghlan, however, says she made "at least two attempts to commence a mediation process" and that "the High Court was a last resort for me". She also states the statement regarding her expectations financially is incorrect "and potentially damaging to me".

In his report, Treacy also says the AAI budgeted for the costs and the council was satisfied that "grant aid allocated to AAI was spent for the purposes intended". Coghlan, though, says that at the conclusion of the case "a special board meeting of AAI took place at which emergency cutbacks were put in place".

In fact, the differences between the two reports are so pronounced, and so extraordinary, that it is unlikely that the council's recently appointed chairman, Kieran Mulvey, can ignore them. As it is, several board members are known to be concerned.

An independent report would have examined the role played by the ISC in Coghlan's dismissal, and carried out an assessment of how the dispute was allowed to get all the way to the High Court and it would surely have recommended procedures to prevent this happening again. Instead, a saga that should have been long put to bed rumbles on. The mistakes just keep mounting up.

Sunday Independent

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