Shane Ross needs to be better prepared to tackle Rio ticket controversy

‘Gubu does not do justice to the events surrounding the Olympic Council of Ireland this week’

Minister for Sport Shane Ross has returned from the Rio Olympics has said he will appoint either a senior counsel or a member of the judiciary to lead an independent investigation into the Rio ticket controversy.

 

Gubu does not do justice to the events surrounding the Olympic Council of Ireland this week. It has been truly surreal to watch it all unfold. The events will have lasting consequences not only for the individuals involved but also for sports administration both internationally and here in Ireland.

They will also have political consequences. Politics in this country has long had an uneasy relationship with sports and sporting bodies. More often than not, the politicians have needed the sports bodies more than the sports bodies have needed the politicians. This uneasy relationship gets even more awkward when it comes to major international events such as the Olympics.

Ministers seek to walk a fine line between acknowledging the achievements of Irish competitors while trying to avoid accusations of bandwagoning.

The uncomfortable position in which politicians find themselves was illustrated this week by the fact that in order to get access to the events in Rio – and to photo calls with medal winners – Minister for Sport Shane Ross was dependent on the goodwill of the same people he was trying to hold to account on other issues.

Surprising naivety

While his motivations were well-placed, Ross made some major missteps. He displayed a surprising naivety for one who has worked in media and politics for more than 30 years.

Ross should have fully informed himself of his legal and administrative options and the limitations before he left for Rio. Instead, he or someone on his behalf engaged in a bout of amateur spin and bluster in which they were no match for the veterans at the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI).

The Minister left his political flank badly exposed by overhyping a narrative about how he was going to confront Pat Hickey about the controversy surrounding the sales of tickets as soon as he got to Brazil. If the Minister had listened to anyone in his department or in the media who had experience of dealing with Hickey and the OCI, he would have known that he was unlikely to get much by way of transparency or co-operation.

Among the documents published by the Brazilian police this week was an email which revealed – and many had already suspected this – that the OCI’s approach to its meeting with Ross last Sunday was to put the Minister “back in his box”.Ross should not have been awaiting the inevitable brush-off from the OCI before seeking advice from the Attorney General and his own officials about what to do next.

The events of last Sunday night have now, of course, been dramatically overtaken by the arrest of Hickey on serious charges. Ross will have to be better prepared, better advised and more open to that advice if he is to adequately address this growing controversy in a way which repairs the international reputation of Irish sport and which appropriately holds the OCI and its constituent bodies to account.

The need for the OCI’s role in the arrangements for the sale of tickets for the Rio Olympics to be independently investigated was obvious even before Hickey was arrested.

It is interesting, for example, that the now acting president Willie O’Brien, who was to head the OCI investigation, emphasised after Hickey’s arrest that the OCI would defend itself “to the hilt”. One would have thought that the priority for the OCI and its executive at this stage would be to establish for its own purposes the facts of what occurred and then offer a view on what steps are necessary.

One of the obvious corporate governance weaknesses here is that Hickey has been president of the OCI for 33 years and O’Brien has been a director for 23 of those years. This does not suggest the necessary detachment to explore these matters in a manner which serves the interest of Irish sport overall.

At this stage any suggestion of an Oireachtas-led inquiry can be ruled out, at least for several months.

The focus instead should be on having the Garda explore whether any issues arise for investigation here and what, if any, assistance has been sought or can be offered to the Brazilian authorities.

Meanwhile, the Director of Corporate Enforcement should examine the companies involved, including the Olympic Council of Ireland.

Scoping exercise

The only other thing the Government could do now is have a judicial figure do a “scoping exercise” into how these matters might be independently investigated here in Ireland. Such a judicial figure would be best-placed to consider the relevant aspects of Irish and Brazilian criminal law and the corporate governance issues that arise.

He or she would also be best-placed to advise on the complex issues about when and to what extent the findings of any such investigation could be published.

One thing which is clear is that the drama and pace of this saga are going to be set not in Ireland but in Brazil.

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