Sport International Soccer

Sunday 25 August 2019

Political concerns cast doubt on FAI changes

Oireachtas committee members have questions over lack of information ahead of key meetings

The FAI AGM is on this weekend
The FAI AGM is on this weekend

John Greene

The show must go on. The FAI's annual festival of football roadshow will blitz Co Meath in a week's time and inside this happy bubble there will be plenty of reminders about the joy derived from the simple pleasure of kicking a ball round a field.

Away from the innocence and wonder, and the photo opportunities with the likes of Mick McCarthy, though, more serious matters will be attended to.

The FAI will convene an emergency general meeting next Saturday ahead of its annual general meeting a week later - two more critical junctures, it is hoped, on the association's road to recovery.

It has been a turbulent time, ever since the first revelations about former chief executive John Delaney's bridging loan of €100,000 shone a spotlight on how the FAI has been run in recent years.

The children from Kells, Ratoath, Trim, Duleek and surrounding areas won't care a jot for these matters as they take part in this celebration of football, but it is their futures in the game which are at stake.

Saturday's EGM in Dunboyne has one function: to seek approval from the membership to introduce a raft of changes arising from the recently-published governance review which will, the FAI says, improve the way it is run.

Pádraig Ó Céidigh: 'Disappointed'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Pádraig Ó Céidigh: 'Disappointed'. Photo: Tony Gavin

However, there is concern at not just the scale of the task facing the FAI, but at how it is managing its recovery.

Some members of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport are now openly questioning the push to implement the recommendations in the internal governance review while five further independent investigations - including from the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement - are still under way.

"There's an incredible rush, and we're in danger of putting in place a whole series of recommendations that might become obsolete as each of these other reports become available and in terms of what measures will need to be taken," says Fianna Fáil's Marc MacSharry,

And Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh says he is "disappointed" that the egm and agm are proceeding despite the fact that the Oireachtas committee is still waiting on answers from the FAI following its at times shambolic appearance in Leinster House last April.

"I'm disappointed in relation to commitments overall that were made to provide information to the committee that was not readily available at the time the witnesses came in and I can understand that, that can happen," he says. "But there is information that we were told there'd be follow-up on and some of that, to my knowledge, we haven't got it to date."

The fact that the agm will proceed without having the latest accounts available has caused considerable dismay across sporting and political circles. It is, says Ó Céidigh, a "grave situation".

Ó Céidigh, of course, is well versed in the world of business and commercial realities.

"It is highly unusual if accounts are not ready for an agm, particularly if you are talking about accounts that are up to December 31 and the agm is not for another seven or eight months after that," he says. "You definitely should have audited accounts.

"Why would you not have audited accounts ready and signed off? The obvious reason is you're not ready to have them signed off, there is something holding it back for some reason or other. I don't know what it is and I don't want to be guessing. I don't know why they haven't been signed off, it's very, very unusual."

Even more troubling is that it is by no means certain that changes proposed in the governance review will be accepted. Last week a majority of delegates at the AGM of the Schoolboys FAI (SFAI) said they would vote against the reforms.

Key changes proposed include addressing issues around the board's gender balance and term limits, and also for the board to be increased to 12 members, with four independent appointments. Ó Céidigh, however, believes an interim board must be appointed first.

"I do have a concern that the board that were administering the FAI all along up to now did not either understand corporate governance or had no interest in implementation of corporate governance and that it may be substantially the same board elected by the same cohort of people that will be tasked in implementing the corporate governance review document. I think that's a mistake. I've made that known to lots of people, that's my opinion on it.

"I believe that there should be an interim board put in place with the key stakeholders appointing some members, and the purpose of this interim board is to implement a strategy on good effective corporate governance and then hand it back to the FAI after that."

On an interim board, he wants UEFA to appoint four, the FAI to appoint four, and the minister, through Sport Ireland, to appoint four, along with an independent chairperson with particular experience of corporate governance and sport.

In recent days, MacSharry has written to the Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, and Sport Ireland, expressing similar concerns.

He wrote: "Clearly many within the association work extremely hard on behalf of the football community but legitimate concerns cannot be credibly addressed from within.

"In the interests of all concerned, any perception, whether correct or not, that those responsible for current difficulties are charged with designing the solutions undermines the potential for the association to regain the confidence of the broad football family and indeed the taxpayers who contribute to financial support from the Exchequer."

Over the last week, senior figures in the FAI, such as president Donal Conway and members of the review committee, have been travelling the country to outline the changes to the grassroots. Venues included Letterkenny and Claremorris. According to one source, one such event last week was not particularly well attended.

Ó Céidigh says feedback he has received in recent weeks revealed a level of "apathy" or even "disgust" at recent revelations around the FAI's finances and governance. Volunteers who work tirelessly all year round with children, he says, "deserve better".

It is expected that political pressure on the association will continue to mount in the build-up to the agm on July 27.

Sport Ireland will appear before the Oireachtas committee on Wednesday afternoon to provide an update on its work with the FAI.

Ó Céidigh had called for the association to also be invited back ahead of its Agm but that is not going to happen now, and because of the summer recess it could be autumn before the FAI is back. "It would have been good to clear the air," he says.

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