Friday 19 January 2018

Oireachtas hearing flooded with crocodile tears

IABA officials, from left, Fergal Carruth, Ciaran Kirwan and Joe Christle
IABA officials, from left, Fergal Carruth, Ciaran Kirwan and Joe Christle

Tommy Conlon

In fairness to Fergal Carruth, he gave an exemplary display on Wednesday in the art of leading from behind. Normally one would expect the CEO of any organisation to stand front and centre in any hostile environment, leading the charge.

At the Oireachtas committee on Wednesday, however, Carruth was left holding the spit bucket. It was Joe Christle and Ciaran Kirwan who traded blows with the TDs and senators who wanted to know why Billy Walsh had gone to America.

Christle, a practising barrister, is chairman of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association board of directors; Kirwan, a solicitor and partner in a law firm, is a member of the IABA board.

Early in Wednesday's proceedings, Timmy Dooley TD raised with Christle the vexed question of Carruth's relationship with Walsh. Carruth was sitting beside Christle but sang dumb and allowed Christle answer on his behalf.

This would be their strategy for the next four hours: Kirwan and Christle would expound at great length while Carruth would say virtually nothing. This was not a chief executive officer showing leadership and taking responsibility. The scenario instead evoked the sense that a ward of court was being protected by his lawyers. The impression was of someone being kept out of the witness box for fear of what he might say. The CEO's silence spoke volumes.

Meanwhile, on the same day and on the other side of the Atlantic, USA Boxing were extolling the virtues of the coach they'd taken from under the noses of the IABA. Billy Walsh, the most successful coach in Irish sporting history, had signed the contract that made him head coach of the US national women's team.

For four hours, Kirwan and Christle sat in front of the committee with plausible faces and implausible explanations as to why this situation had been allowed to happen. They heaped praise on Walsh; they were so sorry to see him go; they did everything they could to keep him.

But for some reason, the committee members still struggled to understand why the IABA hadn't managed to hold onto him. In fact, it seemed many were downright sceptical about the IABA's good faith in all of this. "You, Mr Christle," stated Senator Eamonn Coghlan, "said that you wanted Billy to stay. Personally, I don't believe that."

There it was, in black and white. Coghlan just didn't believe him. One of Ireland's greatest athletes had served on the Sports Council's High Performance Committee between 2008 and 2012. "And I foresaw this coming to a head all those years (ago)."

In our opinion the Oireachtas committee acquitted itself well on Wednesday. There was palpable concern that an outstanding servant of this country had been wronged; that the former head coach of boxing's High Performance Unit had been hurt and mistreated by his employer. Christle and Kirwan's expressions of admiration for Walsh were seemingly viewed in the room like so many crocodile tears.

John Treacy, chief executive of Sport Ireland (formerly the Irish Sports Council) again reminded everyone that Walsh had been "the lowest paid" of all the High Performance directors across a range of sports. The IABA hadn't even given him the title of director; he was just the plain old head coach.

"Billy was held, and is still held," said Christle at one point, "in the greatest esteem by the board of directors and everybody in Irish boxing."

But not quite enough esteem to pay him what his less successful peers were earning; or to upgrade his status to director. And just not quite enough esteem, either, to put him in charge of the High Performance Unit when Gary Keegan stepped down after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Instead, the then IABA president, Dominic O'Rourke, got the gig.

"Is it true," asked Michael Fitzmaurice TD, "that Mr O'Rourke was part of his own interview process?" Carruth finally found his voice. "That was previous to my appointment as the CEO and I wouldn't be in a position to comment on it."

The concerns about corporate governance didn't end there. Bernard Allen, the former minister for sport, sits on the board of Sport Ireland. He was present when candidates were being interviewed for the post of IABA CEO in 2013. "And I wasn't happy with the process. I was extremely unhappy about what I saw there." Gary Keegan, he alleged, was "subjected to" verbal abuse at the time.

Mr Carruth did not comment on this. Mr Kirwan reminded everyone that "we have been successful long before we had a High Performance Unit. We have medals going back to the 1956 Olympic Games." Mr Dooley felt that Kirwan had "let the cat out of the bag", with this remark. Mr Kirwan replied that he was "bursting with pride" over the achievements of the HPU and its boxers.

Treacy outlined how the Sports Council urged the boxing association in February, March, April, July and August to sort out Walsh's contract. In an August meeting with the IABA, "We were told, 'we have 20 coaches that can do the job that Billy Walsh can do.' Twenty coaches?! We were astounded."

Mr Christle reiterated that at no point did anybody in the IABA seek to remove the head coach from his position. "We all wanted Billy Walsh to stay; we all wanted to retain Billy Walsh."

But for some reason, he didn't stay.

To repeat what we said last Sunday: Christle should resign; the board should resign; Fergal Carruth should be sacked.

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