Tuesday 20 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'FAI are incapable of change and what's more, they don't deserve another chance anyway'

 

FAI Board members
FAI Board members
John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey of Sport Ireland at Leinster House. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Tommy Conlon

Although they were in a Leinster House committee room to discuss the many problems in Irish football, there were many reasons to be cheerful by the time it was over.

Firstly, the TDs and senators had been impressively diligent in their work. And secondly, John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey provided plenty of credible evidence that the overall culture in Irish sport is improving substantially year upon year.

As CEO and chairman respectively of Sport Ireland, they spent some four hours last Wednesday speaking to the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. Next Wednesday, an FAI delegation will sit before the same committee. Like a good 12-round bout on the undercard, Sport Ireland's appearance last week has nicely teed up next week's main event.

It was no surprise to hear from Treacy and Mulvey that they were less than impressed with recent revelations around the FAI's behaviour. But, almost in passing, their observations also made clear that the culture which permits such behaviour is becoming increasingly isolated in an environment which is gravitating towards best practice and higher standards. A bad news story in one organisation is surrounded by good news stories elsewhere.

Asked by Senator Frank Feighan if he ever sought to consult any of his international counterparts when faced by problems within a national governing body (NGB), Treacy replied that corporate governance in the Irish sports sector has in fact progressed considerably over the last five years. "It has. Definitely. And what I have found, and have seen, is that (it) is far superior than the corporate governance of sports sectors in other countries. And I mean that in all sincerity. And I would also say that the corporate governance in some of our national federations is far superior to the corporate governance in (some) international bodies."

It was a big claim, made all the more plausible by the neutral tone in which he delivered it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it up but there are more quantifiable metrics to support it too. In 2018 Irish performers brought home a plethora of medals across a more varied spectrum of sports than ever before. Good governance is enabling athletes to reach their potential more consistently than ever before. Historically, the sporadic achievements of Irish athletes in international arenas were frequently attained despite their NGBs rather than because of them.

The comments by Treacy and Mulvey left one believing Irish sport is in good hands. "We take it extremely seriously," said Treacy, referring to the imperative of proper governance. It has not happened everywhere yet - far from it. But it is happening, it is evolving week by week. Treacy calls it "the journey to compliance".

Mulvey, in his reply to Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, explained that the process is not just about adapting more professional administrative and financial and managerial codes of conduct, essential though these are. There has to be a sort of warm and holistic support too, not least for the army of volunteers without whom the whole sporting ecosystem would grind to a halt.

Which is why "it is incumbent on John and myself and other members of the board that we meet the chief executives, the high performance directors, the volunteers; to go to their functions, go to their events. You need to be there to talk to them, to present their awards, to assist them in the kind of policy direction that (they need). And then, to thank them for what they do, congratulate them for what they do, because the story of Irish sport is an extraordinary story.

"Last year we won more medals internationally than we ever did before, in a multiplicity of sports. We will have Olympians going to Tokyo (next year) and we hope to have the biggest team ever. But we have to make sure they're nurtured, they're minded, they're supported and they're funded."

One would have thought that this is precisely the kind of sentiment and philosophy which will help to bring the best out of athletes and administrators.

A prime example of the ongoing evolution is the Olympic Federation of Ireland - the artist formerly known as the Olympic Council of Ireland. The new iteration of the degenerate old regime hasn't just changed the name and logo. "The organisation is unrecognisable," said Treacy in reply to Senator John O'Mahony. "There is a realignment between ourselves and the Olympic Federation, we're all on the same team now, we're all wearing the same jersey . . . And they're now making inroads with the corporate sector and getting sponsors on board and that's really important. So it's very good news. It's about leadership - and that's leadership."

Which of course brings us back to the FAI. Whatever the outcome next Wednesday, and perhaps in the weeks thereafter, the presentation by Sport Ireland last week was a ringing reminder that the board and management of the FAI are out of time; they are out of step with contemporary sensibilities. They might as well be wearing mohair suits; they are yesterday's men. They saw what happened to the OCI's rotten borough after the Rio Olympics and yet carried on regardless.

If their public appearance before the Oireachtas Committee is not their last stand, the final reckoning is coming for them. They might think it an opportune moment to announce that reform is on the way, that they are going to mend their ways, etc, etc. But they are incapable of change and what's more, they don't deserve another chance anyway.

Sport Ireland "don't impose (good) governance," said Treacy last week, it "is bought (into) by the organisations. That's the only way it (will) work. It's a spirit within an organisation. The principles of governance come from the top of the organisation itself. And if you haven't got that leadership that takes those principles, you're at nothing."

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