Tuesday 23 April 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Writing on the stonewall for man who played dumb'

Delaney joins a rogues' gallery of Irish bigwigs who sacrificed dignity in a brazen bid for survival

John Delaney
John Delaney

Tommy Conlon

From government cabinets at the top of society, to village committees at the bottom, most of the manoeuvring required to preserve power and influence takes place behind closed doors.

If there is mismanagement, it can proceed by stealth in this enclosed milieu. The level of pressure needed to force it to the surface can take years to accumulate. Very often the perpetrators will be accomplished practitioners of camouflage and survival; they will surround themselves with enablers to abet and protect them. If they are sufficiently skilful and cynical, they can all enjoy the trappings and privileges for years without ever being exposed. And even if they are exposed, they can cope with the reputational damage because they're not easily embarrassed. The first rule is to survive.

It therefore takes a lot of ineptitude or arrogance to make them really vulnerable. And even this won't suffice if there are not vigilant dissenters who are tracking these power games and are ready for the long haul that might culminate in a reckoning. It takes stamina and courage to stay on this road. And if these objectors can finally drag some issues out into the light, the legal process takes over and a whole new struggle begins.

It is small wonder then that we so seldom see them flushed out of their offices and into a public forum where they are asked to account for themselves in front of citizens and media. It is exciting because it is so rare. It has almost a subversive quality about it because the system in this country always seems to favour the incumbents; time and again it appears as if the system is rigged against the people, not for them.

When the stage is set for this kind of ritual, be it a court room, a tribunal of inquiry or a parliamentary committee, the actors facing cross-examination will usually have substantial questions to answer. They would have prevented it from ever reaching this stage if they hadn't. They will already have deployed all the money and contacts at their disposal to block the process, to avert the dreaded day. Because their physical presence in this theatre has the effect of diminishing their aura, of removing the infrastructure that otherwise surrounds them. They are on their own in the chair, they are at least temporarily isolated; they can be interrogated without deference.

The dogs in the street knew Charles Haughey had secrets. But it wasn't until the McCracken and Moriarty Tribunals that he was finally stripped of his autocratic delusions. Bertie Ahern's yarns at the Mahon Tribunal - "I won it on the horses" - made him a laughing stock. Although he was Taoiseach at the time, Ahern was denuded of his status in this theatre. Brian Cowen, his successor, stood on the burning ship in the winter of 2010 and as the International Monetary Fund prepared to arrive in Dublin, insisted it wasn't happening. The ignominy and humiliations piled up as the economy collapsed, but still he blundered on.

What we witnessed then was the naked desperation to cling to power. No longer shielded by friends, flunkies, spin doctors, civil servants or lawyers, we could see clearly the visceral ambition to survive at all costs; and it was not a wholesome sight. Faced with the choice between preserving his dignity and holding onto office, Ahern chose the latter course. The loss of dignity was apparently a price worth paying. Better to brazen it out and become a public joke rather than do the honourable thing and resign. In the end, of course, he was blown out of power by a gale of national derision.

Cowen, too, shed his last vestiges of self-respect as he clung on, apparently able to believe it was more important to remain in power than accept the will of a public that reviled him. In situations like this, it seems that the survival instinct is matched only by a capacity for denial. In January 2011 several of his cabinet ministers started to desert him, stepping down one by one, and still he refused to accept that the game was up. The subsequent cabinet reshuffle was his last pitiful manoeuvre before the roof caved in.

In sport, we have seen the same kind of strangeness in the likes of Pat McQuaid and Pat Hickey. McQuaid, as president of the UCI, had failed abysmally to protect cycling from doping; his position had become untenable long before he was forced from office in September 2013. Again, there was the disparity between how he saw himself and how the vast majority following the story saw him. And he was on an annual salary of over €360,000 by the time his hands were prised off the desk, leaving a virtual trail of finger marks on the carpet as he was dragged by the heels from his presidential office.

It took a dawn raid on Hickey's hotel room by a bunch of Brazilian cops in Rio to finally rid Irish sport of the odour that had wafted from the Olympic Council of Ireland for 28 years. Hickey was a bantam cock who thought he was a golden eagle. The OCI was a shell company between Olympiads, a Poundshop business; Hickey seemed to think he was running Coca-Cola. The spectacular nature of his downfall was commensurate with the overweening scale of his hubris: a frightened, white-haired man literally naked at his door, confronted by the police and the TV cameras, and without even a blazer to cover his modesty.

Haughey and Ahern and Cowen loved Ireland. McQuaid loved the sport of cycling. Hickey loved the Olympic ideal.

John Delaney loves football; it is his passion; he is passionate about it; his passion for the game is overwhelming. Delaney, like those other gentlemen eventually did, now finds himself in the beleaguered phase of this familiar story arc. The multitudes are massing outside, banging on the door. They've had enough, they've seen enough. And now he is scratching and biting and kicking to hang onto his post.

Last week he reached that crossroads where you can either hold onto your job, or what's left of your reputation, but not both. He decided to brazen it out and alienate just about everybody apart from his retinue of yes-men. Flushed out from their lair and into the glare of a parliamentary committee, the moment of truth had arrived. The moment for truth had arrived. A swathe of the population that also loves football was keen to hear what he had to say. And he decided to tell them as little as possible. The self-advertised man of the people told the people nothing. The big fella of the FAI, the leader of an important national organisation, the man with the critical information, became a non-co-operating witness in front of the people's parliamentary representatives, live on television.

"On legal advice I am precluded from making any further comments at this hearing in relation to the finances of the association or my former role as CEO or the €100,000 payment either directly or indirectly," he told the Oireachtas Committee. It was the moment he shed his final vestige of credibility to save his own bacon. It was the moment when all his previous platitudes about governance and transparency and best practice were proven to be cant. Here it was, out in the open, plain for everyone to see. Flushed out of hiding, cornered under the spotlight, the lack of transparency became graphically transparent.

The scramble for survival is the one thing that has been transparent for weeks now. The incontinent reams of verbiage in their multiplying statements, the voluntary donation of his UEFA salary, the manoeuvre from CEO to executive vice-president; the sub-committees of investigation, the Grant Thornton review, the Mazars review, the promised co-operation with the Office for the Director of Corporate Enforcement; these are the panic-stricken thrashes of a drowning man trying to keep his head above water. His refusal to budge is basically his dead man's grip on the money and the power.

We have seen this movie in this country many times before. Delaney's position was untenable long before the story of that €100k loan broke. But in keeping with this peculiar species, his embarrassment threshold seems to have a high boiling point. They can tolerate all manner of public shame and convince themselves that everyone else is wrong. It is they who are the victims. It is they who love their country, or their sport. Indeed it is a love so deep that it ultimately transcends issues of best practice or scrupulous governance. "I did it in the best interests of football," he said in relation to the loan. Patriotism, eh?

Naturally, his new role as Exec V-P was created in the best interests of Irish football too. We need him in situ because of his network of influence at UEFA. He is very well got there, which is supposed to impress us greatly, until we remember that Hickey was very well got in the IOC too. Local second-hand car dealer makes good with international second-hand car dealers.

The next and final phase of this story will be the purge. The more they stonewalled in Leinster House last week, the more the writing was on the wall for them. Having fought to the bitter end to survive, the chap and his cronies will soon be scoured out of their offices.

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