Political Football

Explainer: unravelling a dramatic split in the FAI boardroom

Gavin Cooney on what this latest Irish football row is all about.

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gary-owens-and-niall-quinn Gary Owens and Niall Quinn address the media this week at FAI HQ. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

WE WROTE HERE a couple of weeks ago of storm clouds gathering at the FAI. Look to the sky now, because they’ve broken.

Niall Quinn called for “unity” at a press briefing but that was dashed last night as the eight football directors on the board took the remarkable step of issuing a statement rebuking CEO Gary Owens over comments made at said briefing.

It was released by Vice-President Paul Cooke, rather than through official FAI channels, and that the FAI board would publicly criticise their CEO is another hitherto unthinkable event to add to 2020’s generous list.

When asked about it in a briefing with the online media yesterday, Owens refuted a claim by TD Marc MacSharry that the board members did not fully approve the terms of the now-infamous Memo of Understanding underpinning the government bailout, saying MacSharry was wrong as the board did approve it.

The football directors then refuted that in their statement last night and have called on him to clarify his remarks, so he will likely have to address it at some point before Friday’s Council meeting.

This is a remarkably deep and defined split in the boardroom, and as is usually the case when the FAI argues with itself, there are few winners and even fewer left untainted.

Given the extent to which John Delaney’s personality dominated the FAI, those willing to reform the FAI in the wreckage of his exit renewed a focus on principles rather than personality and on structures rather than individual reputations.

Viewed through that prism, that independent chairperson Roy Barrett signed the terms of the MOU without a full consultation with the board raises big questions about corporate governance at the FAI. Again.

But likewise, if the board were uneasy about how the MOU was signed, why did they take so long to say so publicly, and on the record?

There have been whispers over the last few months of unease among football board members around how that MOU was signed – and MacSharry has articulated them in the Dáil and in the Sunday Independent – but that the board waited this long to go public about this heightens perceptions they are motivated at least partly by self-interest.

This division now threatens the reforms that must be passed to avoid the FAI becoming insolvent.

The FAI hierarchy driving the reforms are exasperated with the perception that the six/six split – with the independent chairperson given the casting vote – is tantamount to handing the FAI over to outside interests.

Quinn, Owens and Barrett have been clear on the issue this week: that isn’t possible as AGM members still have control given they can vote to remove a board member, to change the six/six split or even to hand the casting vote of a split vote back to the football-elected president.

That message has been slow to get out there, but along with an issue of communication, there have also been issues of transparency and of optics.

There hasn’t been a particularly strong illustration of exactly how six independent directors could take control of the Association, but nor has there been a particularly strong illustration of how they can’t.

To explain how the present four independent directors were appointed to the board: they were among a number of candidates identified for the roles by recruitment firm Amrop, who were submitted for consideration to the FAI’s Nominations Committee. (There were no names handed to the Committee – instead there were profiles of each candidate.)

The Nominations Committee made their choices and sent them to the FAI Board for approval.

Nowhere on the FAI website do they actually tell us who is currently on that Nominations Committee, but we understand that it’s chaired by President Gerry McAnaney, with two representatives from the FAI Board – Barrett and football director Dick Shakespeare – along with two reps appointed by Sport Ireland – Olive Loughnane and Peter McLoone – and an external recruitment expert Christina Kenny.

Added to this, Gary Owens was unhelpfully vague when asked by Johnny Ward in The Currency last month how the proposed new directors would be appointed. “ I don’t know, probably similar to what we used in the past. It seems to be fair, honest and transparent.”

There are other issues that haven’t been adequately addressed by the new FAI hierarchy, either, most notably the Irish Sun’s July report that Maurice Pratt was initially identified for the role of chairman, and that Barrett’s name wasn’t on the original list.

Barrett hasn’t yet sat down with the Irish football media, though is expected to speak after tomorrow’s Council meeting.

Then there is the issue of the shared history between Barrett, Owens and Quinn. The three were listed as part of a “Football in Ireland Visionary Group” last year that published proposals for an independent League of Ireland following a festival of still-unpublished reform ideas organised by Shane Ross at the Mansion House.

Quinn was at pains to point out yesterday that there no longer is a Visionary Group, that it was effectively disbanded after that Mansion House meeting as it never met again, after that meeting in May. While that may be entirely true, the fact Quinn and fellow group member Kieran Foley presented to League of Ireland clubs at a summit last July offers a different perception.

Some among the hierarchy feel that howls of a “Visionary Group takeover” are a useful Trojan Horse for the members trying to stymie the rule changes and while that may be correct, but it’s very difficult to disentangle anyone’s true motivations in a dispute as messy and as sprawling as this, and the hierarchy could have done more to change the optics.

On the day of the headline-grabbing bailout announcement outside the Department of Sport, for example, Quinn and Owens were front and centre with Shane Ross, while Barrett and two independent directors stood in the background. None of the other football board members were present, nor was the FAI’s Director of Communications.

It’s difficult not to have some sympathy for the hierarchy given the situation they inherited was fragile and dysfunctional enough without adding the extraordinary challenges wrought by Covid-19.

It is broadly accepted they handled the transition from Mick McCarthy to Stephen Kenny pretty well – bar a seeming communication breakdown with Robbie Keane – and while the League of Ireland restart process was bruising, the early weeks of the WatchLOI streaming service has been a success and a genuine source of optimism.

roy-barrett-and-paul-cooke-after-the-meeting Roy Barrett and Paul Cooke. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Covid-19 robbed them of the chance to meet and sell the MOU reforms to AGM members on a more personable basis – as Donal Conway and Aidan Horan could with the Governance Review Group reforms last year.

The strategy to sell the terms thus far seems largely to be a case of telling members that these are simply the necessary costs to pay our way out of the disgraceful financial mess the new hierarchy inherited.

There was hope among some of the football board members that the new government would allow the MOU to be renegotiated – Gerry McAnaney and Paul Cooke told Uefa so on a 6 July call – but new minister Catherine Martin wrote to the FAI three days later to warn them the terms are not for changing.

Siptu, Uefa and Fifa have since endorsed the rule changes.

However, the FAI have tweaked one of the rules of the MOU, so now Council members with more than 10 years’ service can now stay on if they pass a fit and proper persons test.

Owens and Quinn tried to defend this as an interpretation of the rule rather than a change, but given the rule calls for a reform to the process of appointing Council members “with a view to retiring Council members with greater than 10 years’ service by July 2020”, it’s not credible to argue the fact they could now stay on is anything other than a change.

This undermines the government’s message that the terms of the MOU cannot be changed, and has put noses out of joint at the Department of Sport while it has angered some new Council members who have joined and are eager for reform.

Tomorrow’s Special Council meeting will discuss rather than vote on the rules and will be a world from the mute gatherings which met John Delaney.

Given what’s at stake – accept the reforms or we go bust – you’d imagine that they probably will pass an EGM in three weeks’ time in some shape or form, but expect continued opposition to the six/six split, particularly if there is no retreat on the 10-year rule.

There may be a compromise thrashed out whereby the six/six split remains but a rule is brought in to give the football-elected president, rather than the independent chair, the casting vote in split decisions.

It’s imperative everyone finds a way through this latest contretemps if the FAI is to have a viable future. For now they remain exasperatingly loyal to the past: an organisation founded in a split approaches its centenary as divided as ever.

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