FAI AGM: ‘You wouldn’t put some of these board members in charge of running a school tuck shop, never mind Irish football’

Battlelines drawn ahead of FAI agm as independent and football directors disagree on direction of Irish football

A fracture on the FAI board has prompted one source to tell The Irish Times that some directors are incapable of managing a “school tuck shop, never mind Irish football”.

Battlelines have been drawn in advance of Saturday’s agm after a vote last month to expand the board from 11 members to 14, including two more women, failed to secure the necessary 75 per cent majority at the general assembly.

This leaves the threat of Government funding being halved in 2024, a loss of €4.35 million to the FAI, as Minister of State for Sport Thomas Byrne has confirmed that all Irish sporting bodies must attain at least 40 per cent female representation on their boards by the end of the year.

“This has nothing to do with female representation and it is all to do with [football] politics,” explained the source. “The politics is an amalgam of certain factions who have always wanted to take back control. You wouldn’t put some of these board members in charge of running a school tuck shop, never mind Irish football.”

READ MORE

The conflict between the FAI’s independent directors, who are seeking to implement a modern governance structure, and power brokers from various football constituencies began when Roy Barrett was recommended to become chairman of the board by Bank of Ireland governor Patrick Kennedy. As of the 2022 accounts, the FAI owe the Bank of Ireland €50.9 million.

“I did ring Patrick when I first met [the recruiters Amrop] to say ‘Jaysus Patrick, what did I ever do to you, you’ve put me forward for this?!’” Barrett told The Irish Times in April. “I talked to him for about five minutes. But then you get all this suspicion.”

While the FAI has been unable to obtain the gender quota on their board, the GAA and the IRFU have shown how to navigate this complicated business without fuss and, crucially, without losing funds for grassroots.

The GAA and the IRFU have implemented new structures to hit their 40 per cent female representation.

The IRFU had 13 per cent female representation on their management committee until they added Gráinne Carroll, Diane Nixon, Josephine Feehily and Regina Moran, as representatives of all four provinces, with three more women to be co-opted this month.

Until the recent Special Congress, the 19-strong GAA management committee had just three woman at the table. By expanding to 21, nine of whom are women, they hit the target.

The FAI embraced the same solution, expand and add, but they’ve struggled to execute in a similarly low-key fashion. Now they are on the clock. The current plan is to expand to 14 directors, while adding two more female voices and re-electing independent board members Liz Joyce and Catherine Guy. This would leave six women and eight men running the game in Ireland.

But this requires another extraordinary general meeting (egm) , on Saturday morning, before the FAI agm kicks off at the Radisson Blu St Helen’s Hotel at 1pm.

Seemingly, seven independent directors will make up the 14-strong board; but two of them will be well known to the football family. Packie Bonner is already listed as an independent board member and a woman with a background in the game is also expected to join.

The ever-widening divide between directors from different backgrounds goes back to the Memorandum of Understanding agreed with Government to secure a €30 million bailout for the FAI in 2020. This was signed by Barrett and former minster for sport Shane Ross without consulting the board in detail.

“There’s a massive amount of oversight on all aspects of performance and every item of significant expenditure, all of which is fed through to the board,” said Barrett in February 2022. “All I can do is give you assurance we’re not lacking transparency, we have a very transparent operation around the board.

“We need to stop looking back at the past and making excuses for it. I don’t want to be sitting here in a year’s time [saying] ‘well actually we have a trust issue because of what happened two years ago.’ That now stops.”

But trust issues do remain, as Siptu’s recent letter to Mr Byrne showed, as the union accused the FAI senior executives of fostering an “‘upstairs-downstairs’ organisational culture.

Barrett initially planned to hand over the chair to an independent woman member on Saturday afternoon. This will not now happen. Former Tesco Ireland chief executive Tony Keohane is expected to replace Barrett, who cut ties with the FAI on November 9th, the same night the Jonathan Hill repayments scandal broke in the media.

It could be all right on the day. Hill, the FAI chief executive, will speak to the media for the first time since the repayments scandal so it is possible that all the governance issues will be untangled.

Still, like old times, the politicians are circling with two separate public hearings slated for December 13th and February 1st.

Barrett, Hill, Bonner and other board members, including Joyce, who is chair of the FAI executive performance and remuneration committee, have been called to appear in Leinster House next week to answer questions from the joint Oireachtas committee on tourism, culture, Gaeltacht, sport and media.

The Public Accounts Committee also want to hear from the FAI, with specific questions about how €33.7 million in Covid grants were distributed.

As Hill continues to weather a storm around the two separate sums he had to repay the FAI, €8,500 of benefit in kind and €12,000 in holiday pay, his counterparts in Lansdowne Road (Kevin Potts) and in Croke Park (Tom Ryan), steered the rugby and Gaelic ships through choppy waters unscathed.

“There is a concerted effort there to remove Jonathan Hill as CEO,” said the source.

Hill is also facing other commercial and practical football issues. Managers for both the men’s and women’s senior teams need to be found, and the men’s team shirt continues to go without a sponsor.

Some good news is needed, and fast, if the FAI are to enter 2024 on steady ground.

Current FAI board

Gerry McAnaney (outgoing president): The former goalkeeper, RTÉ librarian and commandant in the Defence Forces will be replaced by Paul Cooke or Joe O’Brien.

Paul Cooke (outgoing vice-president): The former CEO of the Sunday Business Post and a chartered accountant, the Waterford United delegate to the FAI Council became the association’s interim CEO in December 2019.

Roy Barrett (former chairman): Strong supporter of Stephen Kenny, Vera Pauw and Jonathan Hill, the stockbroker and former Pegasus footballer prematurely concluded a four-year period of trying to bring stability to Abbotstown.

Niamh O’Mahony: The Chief Operating Officer at Football Supporters Europe, the former Cork City secretary pipped Caroline Rhatigan to a board seat in November 2022.

Catherine Guy: Independent director. The daughter of anti-doping testers Kay and Al Guy, the solicitor is currently CEO of Nifti Car Leasing.

Liz Joyce: Independent director. The former director of human resources at the Central Bank of Ireland and Diageo, she’s currently MD at Transformation Catalyst.

Maeve McMahon: Independent director, appointed in June. Like Guy and Joyce, the Clare native brings non-football expertise from her banking and commercial background.

John Finnegan: Currently chairs the amateur and youth committee while advocating for Munster football. Expected to be elected vice-president.

Joe O’Brien: Represents the interests of minority groups within Irish football, having chaired the Colleges FAI.

Robert Watt: The secretary general of the Department of Health and a former economist, the Dubliner brings an influence to Irish football from far beyond its normal reach.

Packie Bonner: Hero of Italia ‘90, the FAI’s international and high performance committee chair tends to keep a low profile, but a couple of months ago suggested that Dermot Desmond should buy a League of Ireland team and turn it into a Glasgow Celtic feeder club.