Sideline Cut: Gender equality? Come on, what would the lads think?

Westminster’s move against FA shines light on dismal governance of sport in Ireland


Around Christmas time of last year, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Patrick O’Donovan gave an address which was Lincolnian in its intent if not, alas, in its brevity. He declared that he was going “to break the last glass ceiling,” – which was radical talk indeed before coffee had even been served.

The ceiling in question was, he clarified, that which prevented more women from taking seats on the executive boards of Ireland’s august sporting institutions. No glass shattered but the chandeliers in the old Shelbourne fairly trembled as the Limerick politician whipped himself into a storm of righteous indignation. It was difficult to imagine anyone caring so passionately about the gender composition or otherwise of an activity which must feature among the dullest of all human experiences: attending board meetings.

But the Minister talked the good talk and made it possible to believe that hearing the news that Cricket Ireland, say, had folded and allowed a female into its think-tank would constitute a major shift in the struggle for gender equality. He made the issue of gender quotas his cause, presenting himself as a sort of MLK for boardrooms across the land.

And on the evidence of his speech, it would be hard to dispute his genuine intentions. He went for it with gusto, threatening to sever funding from Sport Ireland unless the various houses got their boardrooms in order. One can only imagine the paling faces in the houses of the GAA, the FAI and IRFU as word travelled around the city.

On that very same afternoon as the junior Minister went maverick on the pulpit, senior Minister Shane Ross met with around 50 representatives from Ireland’s sporting bodies. Mostly guys, then, presumably. The general vibe they communicated to Minister Ross was that while they were all up for the gender equality thingamajig on their boards, they weren’t all that keen on the whole cutting-the-funding malarkey. So when asked about the likelihood of withholding funds in the event of associations not meeting the 30 per cent quota, Minister Ross called off the hounds.

“There was a general consensus at the meeting that punitive measures would not assist us in achieving that goal.”

Rapped the knuckles

The whole charade was a classic piece of Irish political stalemate-ism in which the senior man rapped the knuckles of his junior colleague and at the end of the day, nothing was done. As it happened, the day in question was Friday, December 16th. People had Christmas shopping to do; bills to pay, worries to which to attend. It was just another puff of political hot air destroying the ozone layer.

So Minister O’Donovan must have looked wistfully across the water to the House of Commons this week, which debated the composition of perhaps the most famous and vilified board in all of sport: the Football Association. There is something about the very initials of the FA which conjures up a hazy image of mahogany, of cigar smoke and of gravy stains on Savile Row shirts.

Far beneath the fantastical glamour of the Premier League, there is a debate going on about the refusal of the FA to reform itself to reflect the times, with sports minister Tracey Crouch threatening to stop the funding of up to £40 million (€47 million) if things don’t change.

Greg Dyke is among five former FA executives to publicly call on the government to introduce legislation forcing the “old men of English football” to accede to change. Of the 122 people sitting on the FA council, eight are women and just four are from ethnic minorities. Crouch has given the FA until March to illustrate its compliance with the governance code or face the withdrawal of the funds which keep grassroots football alive in England.

The current chairman, Greg Clarke, has vowed to step down unless he can convince parliament of the integrity of the FA’s intentions. Nonetheless, a motion of no confidence, proposed by the MP Damian Collins was passed on Thursday in the Commons. It was hardly the talk of Westminster saloons that evening – just 17 of the 650 representatives were in attendance. But the issue will come into sharper focus in March. And it is a clear example of how a government can put political pressure on state-funded sports bodies.

It is difficult to imagine a similar debate or motion of no confidence taking place in the Irish political chambers, at least not until the free gratis tickets for the hurling final begin to dry up. The male-dominated tradition of Ireland’s sporting boards does, of course, make for laughable reading. Mary Quinn made history by becoming the first woman elected to the board of the IRFU recently.

The other dominant sports organisations, the GAA and the FAI have been made up of men – although the FAI has moved to appoint a female member to its board.

The election of Sarah Keane as the new president of the Olympic Council of Ireland did, of course, represent a significant step for female representation in Irish sports administration. The relevant point about Keane was that, of the candidates who put themselves forward for election, she was the easily the most convincing.

Two fingers

Electing Willie O’Brien, firmly part of the Pat Hickey cabal, would have been like raising two fingers to the world. Bernard O’Byrne has done a reasonable job as CEO of Basketball Ireland but in going for this job he presented himself as a radical outsider and nobody was feeling the Byrne. The image of Swim Ireland has improved dramatically under Keane’s watch and it will be interesting to see if and how she changes both the working practices and the image of the OCI in the years ahead.

It is surely significant that of the 10 members on the Swim Ireland board, four are women. (The one organisation which has an equal split is Special Olympics.) Maybe the election of Keane will encourage more women to believe that these boards are not exclusively boys’ clubs and that the profile of boards will reflect gender equality through appointment by merit.

Still, the motion in Westminster this week – and the upcoming scrutiny to which the Football Association is to be subjected – shone a light on the dismally ineffectual governance of sport in Ireland.

The lacklustre debate in January when the heads of the GAA, IRFU and FAI came into the Oireachtas to face inquisition from the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport surprised nobody. Irish governments have always treated sport as a kind of an exoticism and a succession of sports ministers seemed to regard the role as a happy task of ceremonial crowd-waving and medal-giving: a kind of reward for having to deal with Iarnród Éireann and other headaches.

If there is a vision to change the interior mechanisms of a sporting institution – as the UK sports minister is now demanding from the Football Association – the minister for sport in Dáil Éireann has the power to turn that into reality.

It may make life uncomfortable and it may mean cracking the whip. It may mean threatening funding and actually getting serious about sport.

That’s why it hasn’t happened and won’t happen as things stand.

After all, what would the lads think?

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