Shane Ross: 'Strange how funny things happen to ministers who take on the FAI'
Beware of football chiefs bearing gifts - someone could end up peddling porkies about you, writes Shane Ross
Last Saturday week, just before the chimes at midnight, the battered cabal that controls Irish football made a shock announcement. They had settled with former chief executive John Delaney for an unknown sum.
The details would not be released. Mystery shrouded the goings-on that led to the inevitable end of a chapter in the FAI's history.
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The news was cleverly released too late for any unwelcome comment or analysis in the Sunday papers. A master- class in news management was about to begin. The settlement was spun as a breakthrough, ushering in a new dawn in the FAI's rehab.
It was nothing of the sort. It was another piece of naked window-dressing, masquerading as reform.
Reform is still many country miles away from the top echelons of Irish football.
I should know. Both Brendan Griffin, minister with responsibility for sport, and I have enjoyed some pretty odd media attention since we decided to press for real reform of the FAI.
Last Sunday I criticised the FAI's woeful handling of the settlement, seeking greater transparency and suggesting that the restoration of government funding was a long way off.
That interview triggered a reaction. On Monday morning The Sun newspaper went to work on a tip-off. Someone, somewhere had told them that the FAI had paid my hotel bill after the Ireland v Denmark match in Copenhagen back in November 2017.
They were on the money. The FAI had paid it all right. What the source never told the newspaper was that, as a result of a previous experience with the FAI, I had insisted (just in case anyone else tried) that I should pay my own bill. Nor did The Sun's anonymous source tell the newspaper that when I found out what the FAI had done, I immediately insisted on reimbursing them.
The Sun, with exemplary even-handedness, to its credit, printed my rebuttal. I expected that to be the end of the story.
It was not. The next day it took a different twist. The FAI told The Sun that the super-efficient organisation that runs Irish football could not find any record of my payment. The plot was deepening. The spinner was doubling down. Someone was peddling a porkie about a minister who took freebies from the FAI and claimed to have paid for them himself.
Would I like to comment?
Happily, I could trace the payment to the FAI on my credit card to November 16, 2017 - five days after the match. Plenty of other conclusive evidence of the payment surfaced.
Uncharitable sceptics have suggested that the FAI's byzantine maze of bank accounts may present them with difficulties tracing payments made only two years ago. Others point a finger at the handful of people who knew the full story, but, for some reason, held the important part back.
I don't know who was spinning. But I do know that another minister was fingered in the same article. My colleague Brendan Griffin was the object of some similar media attention.
The two-page spread contained tales of how he had availed of a free flight on the FAI jet home to Dublin on the evening after the same match.
The truth was that Brendan took an early (€134) morning flight to Copenhagen, spent the day doing Tourism Ireland work, attended the match and returned to Dublin after the game on a spare seat on the FAI jet. Hotel expense was saved as Brendan never spent a night in Copenhagen. Yet someone wanted the world to believe that two ministers, critical of the FAI, were on a free junket to Copenhagen courtesy of Irish football. Guess who?
For the record, I personally paid for both my airfare and my hotel out of my own pocket.
As I did when I went to Lille three years ago to see that wonderful game when Ireland beat Italy. Again, staying in the Irish team hotel along with others, including Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, Sport Ireland chiefs Kieran Mulvey and John Treacy, I had an uncannily similar experience. When I asked for my bill on departure, I was told that the FAI had paid it. Imagine what The Sun would have said last week if I had not repaid it! Lille taught me a lesson - beware of the FAI bearing gifts.
Nevertheless we would be wise to withhold final judgment on the antics of individuals in the FAI until we see the findings of three important reports on the association's recent activities. The omens do not look good. Yet there have always been stalwarts serving the cause of Irish football who have been selfless in promoting a sport at no obvious profit to themselves.
The Government has suspended funding to the FAI. It will not be restored until we are satisfied that the culture that has haunted the Aviva and Abbotstown has been exorcised. Yet, beneath board level, remember the unsung host of heroes. Every day volunteers tog out onto pitches all over the country to promote the physical and mental health of our children and grandchildren. We must not let them down. Today, many feel duped.
The cause of reform was meant to be marked by a big step forward at the FAI AGM in July. The opposite happened. No accounts could be produced. It re-elected Donal Conway - the living symbol of the old regime - to the most powerful position in the organisation. Beside him, incredibly, still perches Noel Mooney as general manager, the 'old' FAI's choice, on loan from Uefa.
And the night before the AGM, somebody (anonymous, of course) told RTE that the sport minister, Shane Ross, was being wined and dined down at the FAI delegates' dinner in Trim.
I watched, incredulous, as RTE carried the story. The FAI were apparently paying for my dinner, just as they had supposedly funded my accommodation in Copenhagen and Lille.
I was definitely in Copenhagen and Lille - but at my own expense. I have never been to Trim in my life. RTE, to its great credit, corrected the story.
Funny things happen to ministers who take on the FAI.
Shane Ross is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport