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John Greene: Basketball affair has unfinished business

Irish basketball was left reeling in recent weeks by a series of hefty sanctions imposed on it by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The sanctions follow the discovery in 2009 that a significant sum of grant money allocated to Basketball Ireland had not been spent for the purposes intended.

Now, the Department has ordered Basketball Ireland to repay €124,000 and has said it cannot apply for funding under the Sports Capital Programme for five years.

In a further blow, a grant of €500,000 provisionally awarded in 2008 to help towards important structural renewal work at the National Basketball Arena has been withdrawn.

It all goes back to grants given by the department over the period 1999 to 2006 for the sport's Community Hoops Programme, a scheme which had been devised to blitz the country with basketball hoops in community facilities.

According to the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report in 2010, Basketball Ireland received €1.8m in grants for the programme but only an estimated 20 per cent of the equipment for which the money was provided was put in place. It's understood that the Government paid for 1,720 sets, but only 345 were accounted for. As the report noted, it is a fundamental requirement of public accountability that money is spent for the purposes intended.

If you do the crime, you must do the time. Basketball Ireland is not really in a position to argue with the imposition of these sanctions, although in an open letter a few weeks ago, the association's chairman Paul Meany expressed disappointment with the decision, stating that it "will hamper the progress which has been made since 2009 and which will delay much needed work on the National Basketball Arena".

However, in the next breath, he notes "that the monetary sanction could have been much bigger and that the capital programme ban could have been for much longer".

This is a typical ambiguity from the world of Irish sports administration: We were caught doing something wrong; we were lucky we weren't more severely punished; we're very disappointed with the punishment.

Meany says in his letter that "the then management and board of BI were under the impression that this was acceptable" but of course this is not acceptable, because this was not the association's money it was taxpayers' money.

The fact is the penalty could have been stiffer. That it wasn't is most likely down to two factors, both acknowledged by Meany.

The first is that, in mitigation, the Department noted "that the grand-aid diverted from the Community Hoops programme monies were spent on other basketball-related activities". The money still went into the sport's development.

The second is, in many ways, more critical, and that is the widespread acceptance that Basketball Ireland is a significantly different organisation today than it was three years ago. There is still some disquiet among members about the association, but the fact is that it is in a far better place now. As one person put it to me last week, the association is drawing a line in the sand on this matter. It will front up, take its punishment and move on.

Basketball Ireland is now halfway into an ambitious seven-year plan to turn its finances around. From the outset this plan has involved significant refinancing to deal with a debt which had spiralled out of control by 2009, and which led to the dramatic decision three years ago to scrap the senior men's and women's international teams. At one point, the association was in the red to the tune of €1.2m.

Under chief executive Bernard O'Byrne, who has been in the post since March 2011, Basketball Ireland has been aggressively tackling its financial difficulties. The plan is to make a minimum profit of €200,000 a year for seven years to be paid directly to debtors so that by the end of the seventh year Basketball Ireland will be debt-free. In each of the first three years of the plan, this target has been achieved, and there is some optimism that the debt will be repaid inside the seven years, although the €124,000 fine may affect that. If there is any money over and above the €200,000 that is put directly back into the sport.

This, then, is an association which is in the process of reinventing itself. And, in fairness, at its current rate of progress it seems it will be a much stronger association in a few years' time. National governing bodies are now subject to much more stringent demands from the Department and the Irish Sports Council in terms of governance, structures, and financial stability, and those that don't measure up are in danger of being cut adrift. At least in this regard you would imagine that Basketball Ireland is well placed.

In the meantime, however, it seems to me there is some unfinished business in this whole affair. Basketball Ireland has, rightly, been sanctioned, but what of the Department itself?

We are now in an era when there is a very different view being taken on what is done with public money given that it's now mostly borrowed money. (It is to be hoped that it is not lost on those taking this different view that it would have been very helpful if they had decided to do this long before now.)

As part of his report into the Basketball Ireland grant money, the Comptroller and Auditor General was also critical of the Department. The report notes: "There was a prolonged failure to detect the fact that a significant proportion of the grants paid was not being used for the purposes intended. The absence of on-the-ground inspection of the Community Hoops Programme facilities until 2008 contributed to this."

Ultimately, it emerged under inspection that there were further cases where grant money to sporting organisations had not been put towards its intended purpose, in some instances this was repaid while there were also a couple of referrals to the Gardaí.

It is probable, too, that there were other instances over the lifetime of the Sports Capital Programme where money for projects was diverted into other channels.

Arising out of these discoveries the Department tightened up its procedures for applying for, and drawing down, grants and it is acknowledged now that instances such as these are less likely to occur. The Department also became more active in follow-up work, making sure its money went where it was supposed to go.

In other words, it started doing what it should have been doing all along. Where are the sanctions for that?

Irish Independent