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Legacy issues just another fine mess

WHEN Kieran Mulvey, chairman of the Irish Sports Council, made an appearance before an Oireachtas committee last October he made the following pledge: "I want to draw a line under recent events.

I am a new chairman to the Council and I am determined to bring to an end as quickly as possible any legacy issues that have carried over. I want to bring them to a conclusion that does not involve any more disharmony or adverse publicity."

Ten days ago, on the same day that the council was being credited for an even-handed approach to its funding to athletes and sports bodies for this year, Mulvey sent a letter to sports minister Mary Hanafin which, he hopes, brings an end to the last of those "legacy issues".

This issue was a High Court action being brought by Gerry Giblin, a former director of Athletics Ireland, alleging the Sports Council abused its office and also seeking substantial damages for libel. The origins of this claim are worth considering because, as with the case of former AI chief executive Mary Coghlan, the case builds a troubling picture of the Sports Council.

In April 2009, then minister Martin Cullen asked the council to brief him on the ongoing dispute in AI. Publicly, it was being said that there were internal governance issues in the association, but privately key figures in AI and the ISC wanted to oust Coghlan from her post. (They succeeded in July of that year, which of course led to last year's highly damaging and expensive High Court case.)

Under pressure to respond, the ISC's then chairman Ossie Kilkenny wrote to the minister on May 20 and as part of his 'report' into the problems at AI, he included 'evidence' from Pierce O'Callaghan of what he claimed were issues at the top of the association. Among other things, this document contained a number of allegations and assertions about Giblin, who was then a board member of the AI and chairman of its finance and risk committee.

Kilkenny's letter gave the impression to the minister that the ISC had looked into the allegations and that it was giving them some credence. However, Mr O'Callaghan's claims had first been made in November 2008 to the AI, and had been investigated at the time and deemed to be baseless. O'Callaghan did not contest this finding. The letter to the minister did not mention this. O'Callaghan has now withdrawn this document.

Giblin had first entered the firing line when he refused to bow to pressure to support the dismissal of Coghlan from her post. As chair of the finance and risk committee, he could see the financial and reputational risks associated with terminating the CEO's employment without cause, and he was ultimately proved correct given the cost of last year's High Court action and the ongoing damage to the credibility of the ISC and the AI.

When he learned about the letter from O'Callaghan, which had also been distributed at two athletics meetings, Giblin took legal action. However, during the discovery process in the Coghlan case, Kilkenny's letter to the minister was revealed, prompting Giblin to seek an immediate retraction and apology from the Sports Council. The Council refused to engage with the situation and it appeared another costly High Court outing was imminent until Mulvey's appointment as chairman last September led to the offer of mediation. This has now been concluded and the council has apologised to Giblin and retracted its earlier letter to the minister -- another embarrassing climb down that could have been so easily avoided had the Council acted earlier.

In his letter to the minister, dated February 17, Mulvey (pictured) writes: "Mr Giblin takes issue with the references to him and believes them to be injurious to his good character and standing in athletics and sport in Ireland. The Irish Sports Council did not and does not intend any such inference and we unreservedly acknowledge that Mr Giblin has and maintains an exemplary reputation in Irish sport. We also very much regret any hurt that may have been caused to Mr Giblin. Finally, we understand that Mr O'Callaghan is not proceeding with his allegations and has withdrawn his memo. Accordingly, we now consider the matter closed."

Mulvey may like to believe the matter is closed, and perhaps that the legacy issues have been dealt with, but is that really the case? If by legacy issues he meant outstanding legal matters and their repercussions then, fair enough, that has been achieved.

But for many the legacy issues are more to do with the way the council does business and how it interacts with the national governing bodies it funds. The two most high-profile instances -- the Coghlan and Giblin cases -- point to issues of governance in the council which must be addressed by the current chairman and board, and by the next minister with responsibility for sport. If this does not happen, then the fear is that the matter is far from closed.

Sunday Indo Sport