Miriam Lord: Can the FAI survive the attack of the bean counters?
Transparency issues still there for all to see as committee demands end to ‘drip-feed’
Chair of Sport Ireland Kieran Mulvey and Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy arrive for a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport at Leinster House on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
People used to think that FAI stands for the Football Association of Ireland, but thanks to a newspaper story and a particularly shocking performance by its representatives at an Oireachtas committee, we now know it stands for Feck All Information.
The latest hearing of the sports committee heard that the organisation is determined to change this.
But right from the very beginning on Tuesday, when it was the turn of Sport Ireland to appear before the politicians, it became clear that the FAI is still having trouble in the transparency area. For the second week in a row, the committee, along with Sport Ireland, was hit with last-minute information.
On this occasion, it concerned another major development on the accountancy front.
Rotten timing, as it turned out, for the professional service providers who had been auditing the FAI’s books. Just when they might have been ready to blow the whistle on its dodgy practices a journalist nipped in and pipped them at the post.
Awful bad luck for the bean counters preparing to detonate the H4 bomb, which is a piece of accounting ordnance so powerful it is rarely deployed in the Irish corporate world. The H4 is a weapon of last resort, an explosive formal notification to the Companies Registration Office that a firm is not keeping a proper set of books.
Accountancy firm Deloitte dropped a H4 bomb directly on the FAI at the end of last week. But Sunday Times reporter Mark Tighe had already broken damning detail a few weeks earlier, which was a most unfortunate coincidence.
Then again, people who audit books for a living can only cast the rule over accounts they can see. And, in the case of the FAI, what their auditors saw remains to be seen.
Never mind. Thankfully, the big management services companies are crawling all over the FAI now. Independent, intensive, forensic – you name it, they’re doing it. At least two of these investigations, Sport Ireland chairman Kieran Mulvey told the committee, come “with senior counsel attached”.
So many bodies scrambling to provide oversight on the shenanigans in Abbotstown that Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy found himself talking about the FAI “being oversawn”.
With any luck.
Sport Ireland provides important funding to the FAI for grassroots activities. In the light of astonishing revelations about former CEO John Delaney’s financial dealings with the association, the body withdrew that financial support. It won’t be restored until the FAI gets its house in order.
But high-level discussions have been taking place to try get things back on an even keel. Many football clubs around the country depend on this money.
Sport Ireland met the FAI on the night before the committee meeting. Nothing was said by the FAI about Deloitte’s H4 notification the previous Friday. Meanwhile, the Minster for Sport “was pleased” to announce to the committee that the entire board of the FAI intends to resign at its agm in July, or possibly at an egm if one is called in the interim.
The FAI wrote him a letter on Tuesday morning.
Shane Ross couldn’t say much more than that.
There seemed a concerted effort not to mention the name of John Delaney, who is front and centre in this sorry affair
“I only got this letter this morning. It came as a surprise to me,” he told the committee, holding up the FAI statement.
But Ross thinks it augers well for a clean-out at the top of football’s governing body here.
“We are now beginning to see the beginning of the end of the old FAI,” he declared.
The committee members, far less confident of real change given the performance to date, weren’t expecting the FAI to Begin the Beguine anytime soon. “A commitment from the FAI doesn’t mean an awful lot,” remarked deputy Ruth Coppinger.
“Extremely disappointing . . . fell far short of expectations . . . disgrace . . . absolutely contemptible” were just some of the ways TDs described the association’s attitude thus far to its corporate governance issues.
Looking on the bright side, John Treacy of Sport Ireland said it was clear that “some of members of the FAI are trying to do the right thing”.
Meanwhile, there seemed a concerted effort not to mention the name of John Delaney – former CEO of the FAI, who is front and centre in this sorry affair. Mulvey, industrial relations troubleshooter of many years’ experience, noted that Delaney, in stepping aside from his current role as executive vice-president, is – in industrial relations parlance – “on gardening leave”.
It’s all very fine for members of an Oireachtas committee to call for jobs to be abolished or people to resign, but there are procedures which, rightly, must be followed.
If John Delaney is not a member of the board, will he be resigning too? That was a question Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster wanted answered. Kieran Mulvey, former head of the Labour Relations Commission, threw his hands up.
What the politicians wanted, the witnesses from Sport Ireland could not deliver
“We are involving ourselves in commenting here on something which could end up in a court of law,” said Mulvey, who knows his way around employment law.
When asked if Sport Ireland would request the FAI to abolish Delaney’s newly created role of executive vice-president, Treacy replied: “I think if we did that we’d end up in the High Court.”
What the politicians wanted, the witnesses from Sport Ireland could not deliver.
“I’ve been in the business of industrial relations for a very long time . . . I don’t think I have ‘stupid’ written on my forehead,” said Mulvey, later revealing that he has just collected his bus pass having turned 67. If it turned out he was “getting a bum steer” from the FAI and its intensive internal investigation, he would let the committee and the Minister know about it.
“My concern at the moment is who is auditing the auditors,” he said at one point, demonstrating a finer grasp of the soundbite than most of the committee members.
When one TD mentioned newspaper reports a number of years ago of High Court proceedings involving a major sporting body, Mulvey asked, “Chairman, do I have absolute privilege here?”
You could have heard a pin drop in Committee Room 4.
Speaking of the Kingdom, there was no sign of a Healy-Rae in the room all day
The Sports Council chairman then explained this wasn’t about the FAI but about “people meeting outside the board of the Sports Council deciding who should get grants and how much they were going to get”.
Whereupon Ruth Coppinger piped up: “Did it involve Kerry?”
Speaking of the Kingdom, there was no sign of a Healy-Rae in the room all day. This was in contrast to the previous week’s meeting, when Michael Healy-Rae waited for hours to make a contribution, watched by bother Danny, where he praised Delaney to the hilt and asked no questions.
Perhaps the Healy-Raes were in the Dáil complaining that nobody told them about these “Grant Thorntons” and how it was an almighty disgrace that not one of them went to Kerry.
Back in the committee, John Treacy was explaining that perhaps the politicians are overestimating the powers of Sport Ireland.
Nonetheless, Kieran Mulvey promised the gloves are off. “I want no more surprises. I want no more drip-feeds.”
He wants the FAI to come clean, no matter how much money Sport Ireland gives them.
“Even if it is only 5 per cent.”
And depending on what the attached senior counsels have to say.