Thursday 14 December 2017

Committee's change of heart over John Delaney grilling leaves many questions unanswered

There were valid areas to be explored by TDs and senators with the FAI so why weren't they?

John O’Mahony did not look comfortable with the decision when he appeared on television
John O’Mahony did not look comfortable with the decision when he appeared on television
John Greene

John Greene

Ten days ago, as the controversy over FIFA's €5m payment to the FAI raged, Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis was not a happy man.

Ellis, a member of the Transport and Communications committee which also oversees sport and tourism, was in no doubt that the FAI's chief executive John Delaney should appear before it to explain the sequence of events surrounding the payment. It was hardly a remarkable position for the Dublin North West TD to adopt as it is now commonplace since the introduction of the committee system for TDs and senators to look into matters of public interest, in particular when parties involved are in receipt of public funding.

And so Ellis was unequivocal. "It is in the best interests of the FAI and football as a whole that the Oireachtas Committee and Mr Delaney can meet for a frank discussion on this payment rather than allow rumours and doubt to grow over the actions of our national football association on the international stage."

It was widely expected that the committee would take the decision to call in the FAI at its scheduled meeting last Wednesday morning. That meeting surprisingly became a tense affair, with a firm split between those who wished to proceed and those who didn't. The committee members were ultimately given advice that the matter was beyond its remit and that, it seems, proved decisive.

The chairperson, Fine Gael's John O'Mahony, went on RTé's News at One to confirm the decision. "This was never going to be either a witch-hunt of John Delaney or the FAI, or a protection of John Delaney and the FAI," he said.

Ellis - described in one newspaper last week as "a committed follower of the Republic of Ireland soccer team" - had dramatically changed his tune by then, saying there was no need for the committee to meet with Delaney. "The reality is I take a cue from listening to people but every single person, virtually to a tee, said they were right to take that money. The consensus is there was never going to be a replay."

The TD confirmed he had been contacted directly by Delaney before the meeting. "He felt that everything had been disclosed and I advised him to send a copy of everything to the committee," said Ellis.

Other committee members were also contacted by Delaney, including Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley. Ten days ago, Dooley issued a hard-hitting statement on the matter, calling for full disclosure and describing the controversy as "very damaging" for the FAI.

"Many fans are left scratching their heads at why the FAI would not have told them they had forced FIFA into making a financial contribution following the injustice of Ireland's exit from that campaign," he said. "The fact that news is only officially emerging at this time, in the context of a wider story about corruption, graft and secret payments at FIFA, contributes to a sense of unease and has the potential to do enormous damage to our reputation."

And yet at Wednesday's meeting Dooley also felt that an appearance before the committee by Delaney was not warranted. Dooley also confirmed he had spoken to the FAI chief executive.

"This had no relevance for the committee," he said on Wednesday, adding: "Bringing him in would have only dragged it out to become a dog and pony show."

This sequence of events is just as extraordinary as the saga surrounding FIFA's €5m payment. O'Mahony's explanation that the committee members were advised by an official that the payment was outside their remit is not in doubt. The Irish Examiner reported on Thursday that the advice was that the €5m was "private money". A source was quoted as saying, "We could not compel John, only ask him. This was the procedural advice we got. It is not in our remit."

So why didn't the committee - as it has done on numerous occasions in the past - invite the FAI to a meeting?

Are Dessie Ellis, Timmy Dooley and the other committee members who opposed the move, including Senator Eamonn Coghlan, saying that Delaney's interview with RTé's Tony O'Donoghue is sufficient by way of explanation, and that as public representatives they have no remit over an organisation which receives public funding, or more importantly, that they have no role in representing members of the public by raising concerns in the proper forum?

As a case in point, the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy and then president Liam O'Neill were asked before the committee in April 2014 to explain the Association's highly controversial television deal with Sky. There was no talk then about private money, or remits.

Here's what O'Mahony said to the committee members early in that meeting: "The reason for the meeting is to give them an opportunity to explain the rationale behind the deal, and it gives members the opportunity to convey the concerns heard on the ground when it was announced. There was initial surprise and emotion but today's meeting gives us the chance to tease out the issue."

Those words could apply just as easily to this controversy, so what's the difference? How did we get from the point where it seemed certain that the FAI would be asked to appear before this committee and the decision being taken not to proceed? What changed?

O'Mahony did not look comfortable with the decision when he appeared on television. As chairman he did not vote, but he is known to have favoured calling in the FAI. The majority of the Fine Gael members on the committee - including Brendan Griffin, Helen McEntee, Brian Walsh, Patrick O'Donovan and Senator Terry Brennan - were also in favour. Griffin went so far as to say that he was concerned that Delaney had contacted committee members in advance of the vote. He said "a dangerous precedent" had been set.

Having followed the work of this committee over the last few years, it is hard to understand how this decision was reached. It was described last week as a u-turn, and the fact that it happened after Delaney had made contact with so many members creates an unhelpful air of suspicion. It has also left a black mark against the committee.

In his column in the Irish Independent last week, Ivan Yates said, "It's not a good idea to keep changing your story". He also challenged the FAI on its levels of corporate governance. "The top brass of the FAI (president, honorary treasurer and finance director) have been invisible as their CEO floundered in the face of the furore over Sepp Blatter's €5m pay-off."

It's clear there are questions to answer, which is why Delaney gave that interview to RTé ten days ago. It is not the committee's job to make judgments, or even accusations. But it had a duty to ask legitimate questions of the FAI, as it has of other organisations when the need arose. It did not have to be, in the words of Timmy Dooley, "a show trial" and if Delaney felt he had nothing to add to what he had said on RTé, then so be it. He could have been asked by the committee to make his statement on the record, answer a few questions, and that, you suspect, would have been it. Instead, we are left with even more questions than before.

The FAI is charged with running football in Ireland. It is in receipt of public funding, directly by way of an annual grant, and indirectly through capital and other payments to clubs from the government. The €5m payment from FIFA was questionable, and catapulted it and its chief executive into the international limelight, attracting scorn and ridicule from all over the world and portraying the game in this country in a particularly bad light. The manner in which the €5m payment was recorded in the accounts has also been questioned, as has the secrecy which surrounded it. These are all valid areas for this committee to explore, and therefore should have been explored.

To borrow an unfortunate sporting term, the committee bottled it last week. And looking at John O'Mahony on television, you got the sense that he knew it.

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