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Friday 23 March 2018

Top brass must go in wake of AI mess

A t the opening of the court case brought by Mary Coghlan against the Irish Sports Council and Athletics Ireland, Coghlan's barrister summed up the issues in a sentence. "Can the Irish Sports Council, a statutory body responsible for the funding of sport in the State, effectively bludgeon and compel a non-governmental body to dismiss its chief executive?" he asked the court.

As the case unfolded, the answer became clear: Ossie Kilkenny, the ISC's chairman, and John Treacy (pictured), the ISC's chief executive, believed they could. After four days of evidence the case was settled, at a cost of almost €800,000, and Coghlan was vindicated.

She had stood her ground against Kilkenny and Treacy, refusing to disappear quietly and willing to risk financial devastation to have her case heard. Challenging a state-funded organisation to a court duel is only for the brave: no matter how strong the case, the mismatch in financial firepower makes it an uneven fight from the start and the financial consequences of defeat are completely disproportionate. Coghlan might have been convinced she would win but she could not be certain.

The story that emerged in four days of evidence should be deeply disturbing to Martin Cullen, the outgoing minister for sport, and more particularly to the directors of the Irish Sports Council. Kilkenny and Treacy thought they had the right to swarm all over Athletics Ireland and were prepared to threaten its funding if they did not get their way. They did not want Coghlan as chief executive and Kilkenny told AI directors to remove "the cancer" from their organisation. They wanted to control the appointment of a high-performance director at AI (or as Treacy put it, he wanted to be "all over the process") and they were prepared to be economical with the truth when it came to explaining themselves and their actions to Cullen.

Their arrogance has now cost Irish sport €800,000 and their actions have damaged the credibility of the Sports Council they serve -- not to mention the grief they caused to Coghlan. Kilkenny should have resigned last week as soon as the settlement was announced, and if he refuses to go, he should be sacked.

Treacy, too, should go. His five-year contract was renewed last year (without his job being advertised), but that should not prevent the board of the ISC and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism from doing the right thing.

It is simply unconscionable that the chief executive and chairman of a state body should use the power and money at their disposal to bully a sports organisation into bending to their will. Athletics Ireland, too, needs to examine its conscience and the performance of its own board. At the very minimum, it must conduct an independent review of everything that transpired from the moment Coghlan was appointed to the day she was fired. By surrendering to the demands of the ISC, the board of Athletics Ireland walked their organisation into a ruinously expensive legal action, divided their sport and cast aside a chief executive who had been appointed unanimously.

How could it happen? How could Treacy and Kilkenny believe their actions were acceptable? The problems stem from a lack of proper scrutiny and a lack of accountability. When quangos like the Sports Council are created, they are left to their own devices: traditionally the minister of the day packs the board with political cronies, social partners and a few worthies and then moves on to the next item on his agenda. The board is weak, so the power rests with the chairman and the chief executive. The longer they are in place, the more that power grows.

Media scrutiny, too, is muted. Sports politics and sports policy get limited coverage in the sports pages and even less in the news pages. Coghlan's High Court case, involving serious accusations against the two most senior men in Irish sport, received minimal coverage last week.

In his column in yesterday's Irish Times, Ian O'Riordan, a fine and influential writer on athletics, told his readers that his sports editor has instructed him to "stay away" from the case, so he did. Avoiding legally dangerous areas is understandable, but not if it means that the most significant case about sports administration in this country is not analysed or assessed.

The responsibility for righting the wrongs identified in Coghlan's case now rests with the board of the ISC. Cullen, to his credit, broke with political tradition last year and put in place a new and impressive board. It must now do its job: Kilkenny and Treacy must be removed, an apology must be offered to Coghlan and a new regime must be put in place.

Sunday Independent

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