Bitter greyhound racing row shows no sign of being resolved

Shelbourne Park protesters reject greyhound board’s plan to sell Harold’s Cross stadium

Picketers outside Dublin’s Shelbourne Park dog track protesting at the  proposed closure of the Harold’s Cross stadium. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Picketers outside Dublin’s Shelbourne Park dog track protesting at the proposed closure of the Harold’s Cross stadium. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

On a blustery spring evening in Dublin’s Ringsend, 40 to 50 protesters stand holding brightly coloured placards at the entrance to Shelbourne Park greyhound stadium.

This is not an impromptu demonstration. They have been coming here for weeks now and their placards are large, well-made and professional-looking. The angry slogans they bear – “Don’t Crucify Us” and “Ignorant Good for nothing Bullies” – reflect the fury expressed by members of the Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association (DGOBA) towards those who run Irish greyhound racing.

“Ignorant Good for nothing Bullies” is a play on IGB, the initials of the Irish Greyhound Board/Bord na gCon, the semi-State organisation that oversees the sport and is responsible for both Shelbourne Park and Dublin’s other long-standing track at Harold’s Cross. The ongoing protest at Shelbourne Park is against the IGB’s summary closure in February of Harold’s Cross, which will soon be put up for sale.

With one stadium shut down and the other under picket, there’s been no dog racing in Dublin since February and, for the moment, very little prospect of the dispute being resolved.

Demonstrators

Since the closure of Harold’s Cross, the demonstrators have been coming to Shelbourne Park four nights a week and they make clear they have no intention of stopping any time soon. They angrily reject the IGB’s argument that the Harold’s Cross supporters can be accommodated in Shelbourne Park, which is effectively the national stadium for Irish greyhound racing.

“Harold’s Cross is more of a social club,” says one of the protesters, Derek Hatch. “Everyone knows everybody. There’s fellows with dogs in Harold’s Cross who wouldn’t come near here. They wouldn’t get a race here anyway. If Harold’s Cross stays closed, I’d say racing in Dublin for normal chaps who have dogs will be finished.”

Hatch also says that Harold’s Cross was economically viable and popular.

“You can’t get the figures for trading in Harold’s Cross for the last year, but every Friday night when you went in there, it’s been absolutely black. The last Friday night before it closed, it was reported they took €37,000 on the tote alone.”

The protesters are bitterly critical of the IGB, which they say is ineffectual and stuffed with political cronies. “Until you have a good leader who has the interest of the real greyhound people, then you’re going nowhere,” says DGOBA chairman Mick O’Keefe.

The dispute has exposed deep fissures within the greyhound racing community. All sides agree the sport is in bad shape, with revenues plunging over the last decade. The comparison with horse racing is particularly stark. In 2006 the tote returns to the IGB, at more than €50 million, were slightly ahead of comparable figures for Horse Racing Ireland. By 2015 horse racing’s tote returns had climbed to almost €80 million, while greyhound revenues had slumped to less than €20 million.

Legislation

Long-delayed legislation to update governance, animal welfare and anti-doping regulations in the greyhound industry is finally being brought before the Oireachtas, reflecting political concern about the state of the sport, which is estimated to be worth up to €500 million to the economy annually.

Last week, a Dáil question from Labour TD Alan Kelly elicited the information that the IGB employs 128 full-time and approximately 720 part-time staff, which is more than it employed in 2004, when overall turnover stood at €60 million, despite the fact that turnover is now just €30 million. On Wednesday, Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae told the Dáil it was “about time” that people were removed from the IGB for mismanagement.

Last Sunday, 750 people attended a crisis meeting in Horse and Jockey, Co Tipperary, where a unanimous vote of no confidence was passed in IGB chief executive Seán Brady and chairman Phil Meaney, along with a near-unanimous vote against the entire IGB board. The meeting called on the DGOBA and the Irish Greyhound and Breeders Federation to seek an urgent meeting with the relevant Government ministers who oversee the greyhound industry.

For its part, the IGB says it is under pressure to manage “legacy debt” of €20.3 million, which it says preceded the current chairman, board and chief executive, and is following the recommendations set out in an Indecon report commissioned in 2014.

“The Indecon report’s recommendation to sell Harold’s Cross has been accepted by Government, by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, by IGB and by our bankers, who see it as a non-negotiable element in the board’s business case,” it said.

“The decision of the board to accept the Indecon recommendation and to sell Harold’s Cross will not be reversed and the property will be put on the market in the coming weeks.”

Bitterness

Discussions under the chairmanship of former Workplace Relations Commission head Kieran Mulvey have yet to yield any breakthrough.

The bitterness of the dispute is reflected in the language used by both sides. The IGB has dismissed what was said at the Horse and Jockey meeting, for example, as “populist pap dispensed by those who should know better”.

Businessman and former IGB chairman Paschal Taggart disputes the IGB’s interpretation of the Indecon report, which he says actually highlights the organisation’s inability to run the greyhound industry.

Taggart believes the money from the proposed sale of Harold’s Cross will be wasted by “prolonging the current status quo until the next crisis and subsequent track fire sale”. He also says that while there wasn’t much support at first from around the country for the Dublin protest, “there’s now a widespread feeling that this was a horrible act and the board has to go”.

Taggart believes the IGB underestimated the protesters. “The board thought this wouldn’t last two minutes,” he says. “But Dublin is where all the money is, so they’re losing a fortune and destroying the brand. The guys you saw on that picket are great people. They will not be beaten. The Ministers will have to get involved and get in a room with the board on one side and the DGOBA on the other.”

Meanwhile, the picketers at Shelbourne Park will continue. “I grew up with dogs,” says protester Lelia Byrne. “I’m involved in a syndicate. My mother’s still racing dogs at 80. It’s about time people realised this is a very important industry and we’re not giving up.”