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Dublin: 14°C Tuesday 22 September 2020

'More of the same' - Oireachtas meeting casts doubt on true extent of change at the FAI

The state of the football body was again the topic of discussion at Government buildings today.

Donal Conway (file photo).
Donal Conway (file photo).

IF YOU HAPPENED to be watching the early stages of today’s Oireachtas Sport Committee meeting with Sport Ireland, you may have been alarmed to hear CEO John Treacy describe their investigation into the FAI as a “cosy audit.”

In reality, he meant it is a “KOSI audit”, in reference to the name of the Northern Ireland firm currently looking into, among other things, the FAI’s fitness to handle public funds.

The difference between perception and reality became the central theme of today’s Committee meeting, the fourth in as many months focusing on the chaos that has engulfed the FAI.

The last time we were here, in April, Shane Ross read a letter from Donal Conway in which he promised that he and the entire FAI Board would stand down at the next EGM or AGM.

Ross ended the meeting by saying that this was the “beginning of the end for the old FAI.” 

Now Donal Conway has been nominated unopposed to continue as President, and the central question at this meeting became – are things really any different? 

“This kind of resembles a movie sequel in which some of the cast members change, and some of them don’t”, said Noel Rock.

In truth, this movie doesn’t need a sequel – it’s The Neverending Story.

The latest episode is Saturday’s EGM, at which members will vote as to whether to accept a new FAI rulebook that incorporates the structural changes recommended by the Governance Review Group.

That these changes are adopted is one of the conditions Sport Ireland have put on the reinstating of State funding.

There remains considerable doubt as to whether the proposals will actually be passed, but that’s now relatively old news.

John Treacy John Treacy (file photo). Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Personalities, more often than principles, exercise politicians and churn the news cycle, and the fact that Donal Conway was nominated unopposed to continue as FAI President dominated this meeting.

Shane Ross wrote to Conway last night telling him to step down, and Sport Ireland today chimed in agreement.

John Treacy explicitly endorsed the letter; Kieran Mulvey said that when they heard the FAI Board were stepping down, he didn’t expect them to be “stepping back up again.”

In spite of this promise, it is the 78th and final recommendation of the Governance Report they commissioned and endorsed that is allowing Conway to continue.

For “handover and transition purposes”, the report says that one or two current Board members should continue for a year as all of these changes are implemented.

Now Sport Ireland are in the contradictory position of preaching the importance of adopting these recommendations, while also supporting Shane Ross in opposition to the continuing of Donal Conway… made possible by one of those recommendations.

“We support the recommendations but we do support what the Minister said as well”, CEO John Treacy told The42 outside of session, after the Committee meeting had concluded.

He then clarified that, having read the draft report, Sport Ireland wrote to the five-person Governance Review Group who authored the report to affirm their belief that the entire FAI Board should step down at the AGM. 

“We were consistent with what we were saying”, said Treacy. 

That up to two of the present seven-person Board are allowed to continue is down to the Group’s general belief that some continuity at decision-making level is a good thing in most corporate bodies, but this has erupted as the FAI are not most corporate bodies.

Aidan Horan, who chaired the Governance Review Group, was sitting beside Sport Ireland this afternoon, and he repeatedly made the point that the governance reforms are as much about a change in culture as anything else.

“Good governance does not just live on paper, but is mutually dependent on behaviours and attitudes”, said Treacy in his opening statement.

However fair this is, in the eyes of many, it is being fatally undermined by the recommendation that allows the President lead change he failed to affect in his 14 previous years on the Board.

“What was also said today is that it not necessarily rules that need to change, it is a culture”, Catherine Murphy told The42 after the Committee meeting had concluded. 

“So how do you bring forward a different culture with the same personnel? I have to say, I think this is hugely disappointing.”

Conway’s retention bred suspicion among the politicians during the meeting. 

One committee member asked if this was a fait accompli, Frank Feighan asked how likely it was that Conway would continue beyond the mandated one-year interim period, while Ruth Coppinger said the recommendations put “continuity above a clean sweep.”

Belief in the extent of true change in the FAI takes a further hit considering the significance of the President’s role, should these reforms be adopted.

The President sits on the Board, and although he/she doesn’t chair the Board any longer (that’s recommended to be one of four independent Board members) he/she does chair the Committee that appoints the chair of the Board.

The four independent directors appointed to the Board are chosen by a Nominations Committee, and under the rulebook up for vote at the EGM, it isn’t guaranteed a majority of external, independent members.

This Committee is to consist of no more than six people, and three of them include the President, another Board member and an external recruitment expert. On top of that, the rules allow for “up to three members [to be] co-opted by the Board where necessary.” 

So while there is room for this Committee to have a majority of independent members, it is not guaranteed by rules.

And given it will be chaired by Conway, who sat on a Board for 14 years that failed to appoint the two independent directors recommended by the Genesis Report – there is understandable scepticism among Committee members.

Treacy praised Conway’s steadying influence following the stepping aside of Delaney and his pushing the importance of adopting these reforms, and while all of this is creditable, his track record is working against him.

That many of these recommendations had to be pointed out in the first place is a stunning indictment of how the FAI has been run.

Some of them are basic – one of them, for example, requires those nominated for Board membership to “to outline their particular skills or competencies.”

The Conway Candidacy was not the only issue cutting ice. 

That the AGM will take place without a set of audited accounts for the first time in the FAI’s history was met with disbelief by the Committee members. 

Treacy said that he understood that the accounts are not ready, and that he believes there was initially an issue with Deloitte’s ability to start their work on the accounts. This, he said, has now been overcome and the accounts are in the process of coming together. 

Kieran Mulvey, Donal Conway and Aidan Horan File photo of Kieran Mulvey, Donal Conway and Aidan Horan with the Governance Review Report. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“They may show up pieces that may be embarrassing for the former Board”, added Treacy.

That there are no accounts at the AGM, along with the fact that so many of the investigations and reviews are still ongoing led a couple of the politicians to call for the EGM and AGM to be postponed. 

“It is madness in the extreme to progress without the detail”, said Marc McSharry; Pádraig Ó Céidigh called for the meetings to be postponed for three to six months, given the “many train crashes that could potentially happen.”

Treacy also admitted that the arrival of Noel Mooney as General-Manager on an interim basis was a “missed opportunity”, that “the FAI need a public face that the public could look at and say, ‘Yeah. That’s a good move…that decision wasn’t made.”

This all happened after Chair Fergus O’Dowd kicked off the meeting with a couple of bombshells. He revealed the FAI rang him on Sunday to offer him a private briefing, which he rejected with an invitation to say what they needed to say in public, before the Committee. 

O’Dowd also read out a letter from the Soccer Writers Association of Ireland, flagging the fact that the FAI have denied media access to Saturday’s crucial EGM. 

“That is the feeling”, Catherine Murphy told The42 out of session, after the Committee meeting ended. “That the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“If they exclude journalists from the EGM or the AGM, I think we are going to get more of the same.”

Arguably the most startling part of the day’s exchanges, however, came when Ó Céidigh asked John Treacy if he could assure that the FAI is solvent.

“We can’t. We understand that Uefa are funding them at the minute.”

Treacy also said it is his understanding that the Uefa funding is an advance on monies to be paid years down the line, meaning further financial problems could lie in wait. When the word ‘liquidation’ was brought up, Treacy said he hoped Uefa would bail the FAI out. 

On top of all of this, Treacy said that the FAI’s dealings with the ODCE are “serious and very substantial.”

So, the FAI have been told they must change, yet there is doubt as to whether they will vote for the formal change in front of them. 

If they do accept the change, the flaws of that blueprint and the personnel leading it are leading politicians to cast doubt on exactly how much will change.

On top of all of this, the FAI’s basic solvency is being publicly questioned by members of government. 

The Association’s exceptionally grim prognosis is summed up by the reason a Northern Ireland firm, KOSI, are conducting Sport Ireland’s audit.

“We had considerable difficulty, there was no response to our procurement”, said Kieran Mulvey of trying to find someone to conduct the audit.

“I did personally contact a number of firms after that, and whereas they did engage in conversation, they were reluctant to get involved, partially related to reputational risk.” 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney  / reports from Leinster House

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