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Coghlan's blueprint can lead to change

S ome time in late March a new minister with responsibility for sport will be appointed. The minister will have to get his or her feet under the table pretty quickly at a time when cuts have to be properly managed and aspects of governance in Irish sport remain tainted.

The new Government will obviously be confronted by huge problems from the moment it takes office in mid-March but public mood appears to be such that a return to old ways will not be tolerated. Political reform is a necessity.

It is a fair guess though that, despite a view that it could easily be dispensed with, sport will retain a seat at cabinet, where the likes of John O'Mahony and Jimmy Deenihan are the front-runners for the position.

The likely coalition partners, Fine Gael and Labour, appear committed to sport. Labour has already produced a policy document on sport, while Fine Gael are also understood to be working on a policy and presumably we can expect that to be published soon.

Last week's appearance by Mary Coghlan, former chief executive of Athletics Ireland, before the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Sport, Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs may go some way towards informing the approach to be taken by the next minister.

Coghlan, of course, was involved in a high-profile dispute with the Irish Sports Council and her former employers, which was settled in her favour last March. The sports council and AI had previously appeared before this committee in the wake of this dispute and the committee decided before Christmas to invite Coghlan in to give her views on good governance in Irish sport.

She presented a 10-point plan to committee members last Wednesday and it was notable that the Fine Gael and Labour members of the committee -- and O'Mahony in particular -- offered broad support for the suggestions made by Coghlan. As a member of this committee -- and given that another member Mary Upton is not seeking re-election -- it would seem on the face of it that the former Mayo manager has the broad knowledge base required of this portfolio for elevation to ministerial ranks.

This committee, to its credit, has taken a keen interest in the Coghlan dispute, and others, and has devoted many hours to attempting to encourage those at the head of Irish sport to put in place mechanisms to prevent a similar situation from arising again. (Of course, there remains an outstanding legal action against the Irish Sports Council but that has gone to mediation and it is hoped that another court case can now be avoided.)

The suggestions made by Coghlan(pictured) drew the comment from Upton that she had effectively outlined a blueprint of the way forward for Irish sport.

The suggestions include the point that the council's CEO or executive cannot unilaterally withhold funding from any of the bodies it funds unless it has specific ministerial approval to do so.

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There have been two high-profile examples of funding being withheld; towards the end of Coghlan's time with AI and, more recently, €100,000 was held back from the Irish Amateur Boxing Association in the second half of last year which was finally handed over before Christmas. In both cases, the act of holding back money caused a great deal of tension between the council and the national governing body (NGB), and naturally put a great strain on the finances of AI and IABA. Coghlan's point that, from now on, ministerial approval will be required is likely to be adopted by the next government.

A second crucial suggestion is that the sports council must set out its own governance standards after an independent review in order that it can have credibility when demanding, rightly it must be said, high standards from those it funds. Again, expect Coghlan's view that the Minister for Sport undertake an immediate review to be taken up by the next government.

Other elements of Coghlan's 'blueprint' are that the Irish Institute of Sport should be separate from the sports council, as originally intended; that the sports council should respect the autonomy of high-performance units within NGBs; that the sports council should report each year on its legal costs and actions undertaken; and immediate publication of the sports council's five-year strategic plan and 2011 operating plan.

In the short time it has left, this committee has one or two items of business in the area of sports policy left to examine and if last Wednesday's session drew a line under a sorry saga in Irish sport, it must be hoped it will inspire a rethink at political and administrative level. Time will tell.

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