Despite the strong urging of Imelda Munster (SF) and Senator Shane Cassells (FF) that any funding to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) should be linked to a resolution of the dispute with a large group of current and former women international players, Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers declined to put any such threat on the table.
At least, not in public and not before Chambers has met with the IRFU, which he will do imminently. The union, like the other sporting bodies, is in desperate need of Government aid with an Emergency Fund for Sport payment of €18 million made to the IRFU on Monday.
Chambers went as far as he could to assure the members of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media that he would be dealing with the controversy in a “frank” way and that he and Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, were taking the issues raised by the 62 signatories to the letter “very seriously.”
The dispute arose earlier this week when the players went over the head of their union and sent a letter to Martin and Chambers expressing outright criticism of their governing body and charging it with, among other things, having "inequitable and untrustworthy leadership." They added that the players had lost "all trust and confidence" in the IRFU.
“Both Minister Martin and I have indicated that we are happy to meet with the players should that be needed and we hope to be able to do that in the next week or so,” said Chambers. “We will also provide any assistance or guidance that will help to address the issues raised.
“We will be engaging in a very frank and comprehensive way with the IRFU on the issues raised by the players. They have shown tremendous leadership as players representing the country but also as women representing the country over the last number of years. I respect and take extremely seriously what they have set out to us.
“We’ll fully engage with the IRFU. We have also asked Sport Ireland to engage with the players around providing assistance and we are willing to meet the players themselves.”
Senator Cassells (FF) initially urged Chambers to link the resolution to funding with Munster pointing to the frustration that drove the players to write the letter.
She later suggested that a stronger response should be coming from the Government saying Chambers should make it clear that he expects to have oversight of the current reviews taking place in rugby and that, when complete, they should be put into the public domain. As it stands the IRFU have said they will be private.
Where there was some meeting of minds among the committee and Chambers was in the response of the IRFU to the player’s letter, which rejected all of the player’s accusations in a direct and forthright way.
It was roundly criticised by a number of members as not being conciliatory in tone. Chambers also took the view the response did not help to move the issue towards a resolution.
Cassells went further, adding that the language used by the IRFU in their response was “quite hostile” to the women saying that the IRFU used the words “the responsible approach would be to allow the review process to conclude” when the “whole ethos and thrust of the demands and the statement from the players was they had no confidence in the reviews to begin with.”
‘Starved of funding’
He added that a change in governance within the FAI took place only when in the last term money was withheld and they were “starved of funding.”
“I would ask if that is going to be put on the table,” said the senator. “Will that be said to them if governance changes within that sport do not happen, the very generous support they get off the state would be withheld?”
But Chambers stuck to his guns emphasising that he would not pre-empt the discussions with the IRFU.
“I was disappointed with some of the remarks made in the statement from the IRFU,” said Chambers. “I think it could have been more conciliatory in its approach and I will certainly reflect that when I met them. I think we have to be solution focused.”
Wexford’s Johnny Mythen (SF) characterised the response as “absolutely dismissive in tone and did not help the situation what-so-ever.”
Chambers also reminded the committee that The National Sports Policy set a target of 30 per cent in each gender on the boards of funded bodies by 2027. In a new action plan the Government is asking all funded bodies to achieve 40 per cent gender representation on their board by the end of 2023.
“There will be financial consequences and penalties for organisations that don’t hit the targets,” he said.