Pat McQuaid: “Maybe politics is like that, you are judged more on your failures. You think of Bertie Ahern”

Pat McQuaid interview: full text

Ian O'Riordan sits down with the former president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid, to discuss doping in the sport. He also discusses the findings of the CIRC report that cleared him of corruption. Video: Daniel O'Connor/Conor Toner

 

There are, by now, so many sides to the story of doping in cycling over the past two decades that it’s gone perfectly and madly around. And around again. Lance Armstrong will always be at the centre of it, and so too will the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI, the governing body of world cycling).

In 2005, Irishman Pat McQuaid was elected UCI president, succeeding Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, who had held the position since 1991. Despite campaigning for a third term in 2013, McQuaid was beaten by Britain’s Brian Cookson, losing out 24 votes to 18.

One of Cookson’s first decisions as UCI president was to establish the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) “to conduct a wide ranging independent investigation into the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within cycling and allegations which implicate the UCI and other governing bodies and officials over ineffective investigation of such doping practices”.

Published last month, the report (228 pages, 13 months in the making, and at a cost of €3 million) cleared the UCI of any corruption or wrongdoing: it did however point at tacit exchange of favours between the UCI and Armstrong, certain preferential treatment given to the American and other riders, and general lapses of proper anti-doping procedures.

McQuaid has come out both defiant and proudly defending his term as UCI president. This is his version of what happened around doping in cycling over the past two decades.

Ian O’Riordan: Do you accept there were mistakes made during your term as UCI president as claimed in the CIRC report?

Pat McQuaid: “Well that last point – ‘during my term as UCI president’ – is very critical in these questions. I only took over as president in September 2005. And a lot of the things you’re going to refer to in this interview happened before my term. So they’re really the responsibility of my predecessor.

“Having said that, the CIRC report has come out and, personally, I am a little bit disappointed with it. I think it could have done more, given more to cycling, to help it move forward. I was disappointed with the number of current cyclists that didn’t go in front of CIRC. I think you have to look, in particular, at its terms of reference, which were as a result of a lot of rumours which had been put out there over the past 10 or 15 years by people like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, that the UCI had hidden positive tests of riders, and in particular of Lance Armstrong.

“So [CIRC] was set up with the intention of looking into that period, and seeing was there any corruption in the UCI, in relation to that. And they found there was absolutely no corruption, no hidden tests. They went through all the difference instances, spoke to all the different sides, the laboratories, Wada [World Anti-Doping Agency] obviously, and they found that the UCI had never hidden a positive test, and there was never money given to hide positive tests, or anything like that. So there was no corruption.

“Once they found there was no corruption they started looking into governance. And governance is something that is easy to look at it in hindsight, but not so easy when you’re actually doing it. You make decisions based on what you think are the best for the sport, and that was always the case.

IO’R: Corruption may be a strong word, but there are some glaring examples of preferential treatment. Armstrong’s comeback in 2009 starting with the Tour Down Under (where Armstrong was paid $1 million to ride): it was a small window (13 days less than the required six months in the out-of-competition testing pool) but surely that was preferential treatment, during your reign?

PMcQ: “The comeback to ride the Tour Down Under in Australia was under my reign. That I will accept. But I wouldn’t call it preferential treatment. First of all, he was the first rider ever to come under that rule. The rule was there for many years, and he was the first rider to come back from retirement and ask for a derogation to that rule. And indeed we sat down and discussed all the aspects of it. We then had the biological passport in place. He was tested something like 13 times from the period when he announced he was coming back until he rode the Tour Down Under. His passport was perfect, in line with all of the others.

“So there was a discussion internally between the legal department, the anti-doping department, and myself. And in the end we agreed he could get the derogation. Now, I’m not trying to justify the derogation as such, but I don’t see any real difference in the decision that has been taken in recent weeks, whereby Bradley Wiggins was given a derogation by the UCI to change teams at the end of April, from his Sky team, which he’s currently with, to his new team, which he’s setting up. And he was given that derogation. Normally the rule is the transfer between one team and another can only be done between June 1st and June 25th every year. Bradley Wiggins has been allowed to change by the UCI, at the end of April because there’s a new race, the Tour of Yorkshire, and he wants to ride that with his new team. So, in principle, I don’t see any difference.

“The UCI, at all times, when it had requests for a derogation from the rules, not just with Lance Armstrong, would look at the particular circumstances, and then make a decision, yes or no.”

IO’R: Meanwhile, under your reign, there is mounting evidence against Armstrong, whistleblowers, journalists, all making various claims of his doping. You have said Armstrong was tested over 200 times, yet everyone knows how easy it was to beat that system. Did you not have any concerns about the potential damage Armstrong might do if he was brought back into the sport in 2009 under your reign?

PMcQ: “He decided to come back. We had no option but to allow him. And he did say his main reason was to promote his cancer charity. We had doubts. Of course we had doubts. But we have doubts about many riders, and act on those doubts. If we have a doubt about a rider we target test them, and so forth. And that’s the only real armoury an international sporting federation has., is the testing system.

“Now, Lance Armstrong wasn’t caught by the testing system. Many others riders were, and under my reign as well. Alberto Contador was caught under my reign. Danilo Di Luca. Alexander Vinokourov. Michael Rassmussen. Floyd Landis, the first ever Tour de France winner to get caught positive for doping. So riders have been caught, and others have escaped. Just like [athlete] Marion Jones, who was tested 150-200 times and never tested positive. So riders were able to escape.

“But the testing system is the only way we can catch riders. And Lance Armstrong was caught by the FBI, not by Usada [the US Anti-Doping Agency], or Wada, or the UCI. In every western society, the police know who the major criminals are. Gangland killers, drug crimes, and all that. The police know who they are, and yet these criminals are walking the street despite all the facilities the police have to catch them. We can only work with the facilities we have.”

IO’R: Do you believe Armstrong’s claim that he was clean when he came back in 2009?

PMcQ: “I do think he was riding clean. If you look back at what he said. When he came back into peloton, after he had cancer, he realised everyone was on EPO, and the only way he could beat them was to join them. I reckon he was clean when he came back in 2009 because he knew the peloton had changed a lot, and I think he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it clean.”

IO’R: The CIRC report also states there was a “temporal link” between Lance Armstrong being allowed back into the sport at the start of 2009 and him riding the Tour of Ireland later that year. Was it purely coincidence?

PMcQ: “The two things happened at the same time, yes. But my brother Darach knew Lance a lot better than I did. As soon as Lance announced his comeback, he make it known he’d love to have Lance come to Ireland. And Darach also convinced him to come here with his cancer conference. So all this went on parallel, yes. But no way was there a link between the two, or any deal done.

“But if I can help Irish cycling in any way, I do. Call that favouritism if you want. There’s a young Irish sprinter from the Aran Islands, Eoin Mullen, training at the UCI centre in Aigle [Switzerland], and it was my decision to get him over there. He’s been there four or five years. I won’t deny I’ve made decisions to help Irish cycling, because I have done. But that Armstrong decision to ride the Tour of Ireland was not one of them.”

IO’R: Still, every dog on the street knew there were questions about Armstrong going back to 2005. It was an opportunity in 2009 to send out a message, with evidence or not, to say here’s a cyclist where there were possible concerns for investigation, going back to 1999, 2005, certain circumstances where you could have gone after him, but instead, it was business as usual.

PMcQ: “No, it wasn’t business as usual. The UCI did go after Lance Armstrong. In the 1999 case, it was accepted by the French anti-doping ministry, and the UCI, that it wasn’t a positive test. During that Tour, the UCI tested Lance something like 14 times as a result of a suspicious test at the start of that Tour. There’s also a UCI side to that 1999 story, but they didn’t put that in. We followed our own rules on that, make no mistake about that.

“In the Tour of Switzerland, in 2001, the UCI target-tested Armstrong, and target-tested for EPO, and they all came back negative. So we acted on suspicion, but we couldn’t catch him. And Armstrong also went down the litigation route two or three times, against journalists, and he won. That left the UCI in a difficult position too. We didn’t have any more information on these cases than they did, and Lance won them.”

IO’R: Meanwhile, Armstrong hands over two cheques to the UCI to support doping tests ($25,000 in 2002, and $100,000 in 2005). Did that not raise some eyebrows; a cyclist donating to the very cause that is supposed to guard against him?

PMcQ: “Yes, and I think my predecessor Hein Verbruggen has accepted it was a mistake to accept those cheques. But once again, CIRC examined all the circumstances around those two cheques, when they came in, and have ascertained that there were no suspicious circumstances, and that the money was used for the purposes of which it was said it was used – for anti-doping – and that there was no link between those payments and any anti-doping situation after that.”

IO’R: The CIRC report is also critical of the fact Verbruggen remained so close to the UCI during your term as president. If you wanted to move on in the fight against doping, surely you leave that link behind you? Instead you brought Verbruggen along with you.

PMcQ: “In any international federation there is a link between the past presidents and the current administration. Most of the time, past presidents become honorary presidents, and are there for advice and assistance. Because the scope of an international federation president is not just anti-doping. It’s a very, very wide scope. So past presidents are there to assist and advise you.

“In relation to anti-doping, I did want to move on, and I did move on. And the facts show that I did move on. I took over an anti-doping budget of around €300,000-€400,000 a year, in 2005. By 2008 that had gone up to €3 million a year. In 2005, the statistics show UCI did about 42 out-of-competition tests. By 2012, during my period, it went up to 7,500. In-competition tests went from something like 4,000 a year to 8,000 a year. So the landscape changed completely once I took over as UCI president, in terms of anti-doping. And my predecessor had nothing at all to do with that.

“UCI were the first to introduce many anti-doping measures, as soon as they were possible. We brought in the safety health test [the hematocrit control] to stop guys dying in their sleep. Make no mistake about that. They weren’t all related to EPO, but do you stop the sport completely? Unfortunately, you have cheats in sport, as in life.”

IO’R: Was there any preferential treatment for Alberto Contador in 2010, as claimed in the CIRC report?

PMcQ: “Not at all. He tested for a supplement. It was a contaminated substance he was done on. It was agreed with Wada and the UCI that the first thing to be done, under those circumstances, is to ask the athlete. So the UCI was sent down to Spain to ask the athlete that – which is proper procedure. After that, the anti-doping agency, and Wada . . . the UCI was working in tandem with the Wada.

IO’R: Around the same time people like Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Greg LeMond, Dick Pound (former Wada president) and journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh all questioned the credibility of the UCI. You call some of them (Landis and Hamilton) “scumbags”, and you sue most of the others.

PMcQ: “Yes, I did call them scumbags. It was at the end of a very long, emotional day, when we had actually announced that Lance Armstrong was out of the sport of cycling. And I did say afterwards that I regret using that word.

“In relation to whistleblowers, the UCI has had situations where an athlete has come to the UCI office, sat down and talked to our legal and anti-doping people, about circumstances of his doping, or that he suspects others of doping. And UCI has acted on that, and got on to either the proper authorities, or the police. That has been happened many, many times.

“Hamilton was brought in by the UCI, and was told he had suspicious values, and he told us our machines must be calibrated wrong, because ‘I’m not doing anything’. And Landis continued to defend his supposed innocence right through several court appearances, to the highest level, costing him all the money he had, but also costing the UCI and Wada a lot of money to defend. Only for him to come out a few years later and say I was doping all the time.

“In relation to Paul Kimmage and Greg LeMond, well the only time I went to court was to defend the interest of the UCI. If somebody comes out and states the UCI is corrupt, that’s not just the president they’re talking about, it’s all the staff of UCI, the sport of cycling. I felt obligated to defend that, that’s why I would end up in court. I never wanted to go to court. But as president of the UCI, I’m elected to look after the interest of the sport, and if someone attacks that organisation, you’ve got no option but to defend it.”

IO’R: How would you describe your relationship now with journalists like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh?

PMcQ: “No, my relationship with Paul Kimmage is not good. But in the eight years I was president of UCI he never once asked me for an interview, never once came to the UCI to see what we’re doing, or ask the anti-doping people what they’re doing. And he would have got access to them. Paul chooses to just stand on the sideline and attack cycling left, right, and centre, and purely on doping. He never talks about the good things.

“I’ve spoken to David Walsh a few times, but I don’t think he ever came to the UCI either. Because you see those things don’t sell books. If you get the other side of the story it doesn’t sell books, or newspapers for that matter.”

IO’R: You must have been aware of the perception of the UCI out there? Tyler Hamilton, in his book (published in 2012), wrote about the UCI and “one of its patented let’s pretend to clean up the sport moves”, and David Miller, the British rider, writes about the 2007 Tour being dubbed the “Tour de Farce”, again under your reign?

PMcQ: “Well, that helps to sell a book, when you make statements like that. Both of those guys were thrown out of the sport. So I don’t think they’re perception is fair. I still question a lot of those guys. Because the UCI were trying their best. Those guys were about trying to gain notoriety, to sell books. They’re thinking of themselves, not about the sport. I’ve worked in cycling all my life, trying to develop it, and do what I could.”

IO’R: The Vrijman report, in 2005, is also criticised in the CIRC report, which was charged by the UCI to investigate the retested samples from Armstrong, in 2005, which indicated the use of EPO. Was that manipulated in any way?

PMcQ: “No, I wouldn’t agree it was manipulated in any way. The guy, Vrijman, communicated with everyone who was implicated in the report. But what wasn’t argued with afterwards was the conclusions of the report, that Wada’s own rules had been violated. Wada also said they would do their own investigation, and they never did.”

IO’R: Can you give one example though of anything you would have done different, looking back now?

PMcQ: “Communication was always a problem for me. UCI is like a government, and if I’d spent more money on communications, like the current regime are doing, I probably would have had an easier time.”

IO’R: Moving on to September 2012, the Usada “Reasoned Decision” report, when all the walls come crumbling down. You said then “Lance Armstrong had no place in cycling”, and yet to some it sounded like UCI were actually disappointed that he’d be caught, having held out as long as possible?

PMcQ: “Not at all. Under my watch, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, also a winner of the Tour de France, were caught. Marco Pantani was thrown out of the Giro on the final day, in the leader’s jersey, because of his hematocrit level. So, the catching a star, it’s not something you’d want to do, but if circumstances presented themselves, it was just the same as a small rider. So the fact Lance Armstrong was caught was unfortunate for the sport, yes, but the facts were there, and he admitted it later. But Usada, with the assistance of the FBI, were able to build up a case against him. But the UCI couldn’t do that. The UCI didn’t have the ability to utilise the FBI, or anyone like that.

IO’R: Yet, until the very end, you still argued with Usada over the jurisdiction of the Lance Armstrong case, that it was none of their business?

PMcQ: “We did argue that at the time. And I would still say to this day, under the rules pertaining at the time, that the UCI had jurisdiction. Because the rules state that the anti-doping organisation which was first informed of the particular offence has jurisdiction on that offence.

“And Travis Tygart [Usada CEO] didn’t follow the rules in giving us the “Reasoned Decision”. We saw on the Usada website the same as everyone else. And it reads like a novel. Speak to any lawyer and they will tell you that’s not a reasoned decision. It’s a novel. It was designed for public consumption, and a PR stunt. And I think Usada still think there is something there between Lance and UCI. But CIRC couldn’t find it, and they had access to everything.”

IO’R: Still, without Usada, Armstrong would have got away, and who knows where cycling would be. Do you truly regret then that Armstrong was caught?

PMcQ: “No, Armstrong was a cheat, and it’s good he was caught. Make no mistake about it. But regardless of Lance being caught or not, cycling was going in the place it is right now, and has been under the past five or six years, under my presidency. The fact Lance was caught or not doesn’t change where cycling is now, and for me, that’s the most important thing – that cycling is a lot better place today than what it was when I took over the presidency.

IO’R: Do you think Armstrong feels any genuine remorse for doping? He said he would do it all over again.

PMcQ: “I don’t think he argued that very well. He feels if the field was level he could have won those seven Tours. And he probably would. If he came in now, and there was no doping, well I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him since August 2012. I knew him, and he knew me, but we were never close. That was about it.”

IO’R: Armstrong also claims he’s being made a scapegoat, and his lifetime ban from sport is considerably harsher than other cyclists of that era?

PMcQ: “I think there is a certain validity to that. Because there are guys who did the same thing as him still competing and racing today and earning money from the sport. He can feel, in a certain sense, aggrieved, albeit he was the leader of it, so to speak, and probably earned the most out of doping during his career. He certainly won’t come back into competition, and I think it would be best if he stayed out of cycling.”

IO’R: When your term ended in 2013, and despite all the criticism of the UCI, you were determined to run for another term. Yet you lost the backing of Cycling Ireland, despite all the good work you claimed to have done. How disappointing was that?

PMcQ: “Yes, it was disappointing. I’d be telling a lie to say otherwise. But I was unfortunate because all the allegations about corruption and the UCI hiding positive tests, and all of that, influenced the guys who voted and were active in my own federation at the time. Even Brian Cookson was influenced by that. I don’t think he would have run if he didn’t think there was some merit in the fact the UCI may have been corrupt and so forth, which is why he then started the investigation in the immediate aftermath. So the investigation was political as much as practical. So I think I was damaged by all of that.

“But I’ve moved on, quite relaxed, and particularly pleased that the report has proved there was never any corruption, or complicity in doping, with UCI, either during my predecessor’s period, or certainly during my period. And the report, in fairness, does cover much more of my predecessor, which is when Lance Armstrong was racing. And the report does state, in several places, that things changed since 2006, and that was under my presidency.”

IO’R: What about regrets, because you said in the immediate aftermath of the CIRC report that you would have done some things differently. Such as?

PMcQ: “Yes, there were many times it was frustrating, because you knew what you were trying to do, trying to achieve, and then you get kicked in the face over whatever it might be, another positive, or something like that. I think with the benefit of hindsight everybody would do things different, and I think I may, as the current administration has done, [have] hired a very good communications company, to better communicate what the UCI was doing, or something like that.

“But every decision was taken on the basis of the information you had to hand at the time. There was no strategy for Lance Armstrong, or anybody else. You took each decision for each request for each athlete or team and make decisions on an ongoing basis.”

IO’R: Were you ever concerned about what the CIRC might find out about the UCI?

PMcQ: “Well, the day I lost the election, president Cookson immediately got an international company to commandeer all the UCI servers, and had all of my emails as president, and even before that, incoming, out-coming, personal and internal. And they went through them forensically. And at the end of it all they found absolutely nothing, only certain governance issues, where they feel we made one decision where we should have made another decision. Hindsight will always give you things like that.

“But no, I wasn’t concerned, because I knew they weren’t going to find anything on them that was compromising. Every email I wrote, and received, my SMS, all my phone records. I can see now they selected or searched for Armstrong. Again, they weren’t looking for good stuff. They were only looking for negative stuff. And when you consider all the access and material they had on me, and my eight years as president, the only thing they come up with is me allowing Lance ride in Australia, in 2009. Which I’ve already explained. I knew every decision I made was in the best interest of the sport, taking all circumstances into account.

“I do think other federations can look at the report and ask themselves are they doing as much. Because I think cycling is probably the most tested sport that there is, and the cycling anti-doping system, with biological passport, the no-needle policy, which I brought in during my period, is the most advanced anti-doping system in the world today.

“During my time as president, I never wanted to talk about other sports and wanted to concentrate on mine. But I think there are sports out there that try to keep things quiet, don’t want scandals. And it’s not a good policy. Our policy has always been to test, test, test, catch guys if you can, and throw them out of the sport, and move on from there. That has always been my policy. Other sports should consider maybe improving their own situations.”

IO’R: CIRC also states that doping still exists in cycling, and estimates it at 20 either per cent of the peloton, or 90 per cent. Which percentage do you think doping falls closer too, and can the peloton ever be considered clean?

PMcQ: “I think that’s one of the faults of the report, is that it makes a lot of bland statements, like one guy comes in and tells them doping in cycling is at 90 per cent. So that goes in the report, and of course the media pick up on a line like that, without any scientific background, on how they actually came to that. So it’s people’s opinion. My opinion, and the opinion of a lot of the people in the sport that I continue to deal with, and the cyclists themselves, is that the sport is in a lot better place now than it was 10 years ago, and that now you can compete clean.

“Yes, there is doping going on, different types of cheating, like there is in every sport. I’ve always said that cycling always had a doping problem. In the 1990s, it was like trench warfare, between the authorities and the athletes at that time, with the introduction of EPO, and steroids, during that period.

“I think the best estimate now, with micro-dosing, which is mentioned in the report, there might be a two to three per cent gain. And with the fear of getting caught, I would reduce that to one per cent. So I think riders can race clean, and win clean, and that is the case with most riders today, people like Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, and the young Europeans who are winning races. They all maintain that they don’t have to dope to succeed in the sport.”

IO’R: Back in your day, in the 1970s, you rode with the likes of Seán Kelly. Were the ethics any better then?

PMcQ: “At the highest level of professional cycling, doping has always been there. For a long time it was accepted, and riders would boast about it. So it became culturally engrained. But into the 1980s it was relatively simple. When the EPO and the steroids came in that changed everything. Now, it has improved, and will continue to improve, but at the end of the day there will always be riders who will cheat. When there are products there which athletes can use, and there is no test for it, athletes will use it. The responsibility is not just with UCI. It’s also with the athlete.

“I also brought in an eminent professor of ethics, to go down that route, to change the culture, and mindset. Because you won’t change the culture by testing alone. I was impacted, a few years ago, by Padraig Harrington, in a golf tournament, when his ball moved a little, and the next day, he was told he’d broken a rule, and was thrown out. He came out smiling, totally accepted it, and I thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if cycling could be like that?’ And if I had got another four years I would have gone further down that road.”

IO’R: You are clearly defiant about your reign and role with UCI, with no regrets whatsoever?

PMcQ: “I’ve been involved in cycling all my life, my father before me raced, all my family raced, and the day I stopped racing, I immediately went into coaching, and management, including the Irish team at the 1984 Olympics, and which included a certain Paul Kimmage. Then I got into organising races, including the Nissan Classic, city centre races; then I was privileged to get onto the board of the UCI, and feel very privileged to have been president for eight years.

“It wasn’t just anti-doping. There are a lot of things I did in the sport that I am very proud of. There are black African riders currently riding in the World Tour who are there purely as a result of the effort I put in to raise the profile of the sport in Africa. Races like the Tour of Beijing, which I started to globalise the sport. I brought BMX into the Olympic programme, which is now a big success, because it’s a huge entry activity for young kids coming into the sport of cycling, and brings them into the other disciplines as well. I brought Paralympics cycling into the UCI family. So there are a lot of things I’m proud of, and I will always love this sport.

“I’m looking at some other cycling projects in Ireland, and that may be a possibility into the future, so I will certainly stay in the sport. This report, while it does question some governance decisions, my opinion would be slightly different on that. The sport will continue to flourish, continue to improve, and if I can help and assist in any way then I’m prepared to do so.

“I don’t have any antagonism towards Cycling Ireland. A lot of them were new to the sport, were reading all the stuff presented to them, and believed it. Maybe it they read the CIRC report they might think different. Maybe politics is like that, you are judged more on your failures. You think of Bertie Ahern.”

IO’R: The CIRC report also suggests all governing bodies of sport can learn some of the lessons from cycling and the UCI, would you agree?

PMcQ: “There is a danger there, in other sports. I do look at rugby now, it could very easily happen. Guys who want to play, be on the field, doctors will give them whatever they want. Cycling comes from a different place, anyway. But there is big money in rugby now, and that changes everything. I look at rugby players now, and the size of them. But I don’t think that’s because of doping. They’re professional players, spending a lot of time in the gym. But all high performance sport now is heavily medicalised and it does depend on how much you allow those doctors to intervene in the process. That’s why I brought in the no-needle policy, unless it’s for a medical prescription. That goes back to ethics.”

IO’R: Yet, after all that, a lot of people will think of Pat McQuaid and his legacy and consider him part of the problem in doping rather than part of the solution.

PMcQ: “No, I wouldn’t agree at all, I’m part of the solution, because the changes which have happened in the last 10 years, which all of the riders and officials around the sport will tell you, are changes that were made under my administration, with rules and regulations and new initiatives brought forward, in anti-doping, which I brought forward.”

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