Anger and Exasperation in the Corridors of Power

Having studied politics for a University degree, and survived in business for all of my career to date I am aware of the fact that the two very often speak a different language and have a vague mistrust of the other despite recognising their respective parts played in what we think of as our society.

Yesterday was one of the days when, like the mythic figure of Janus, they were looking in completely the opposite direction.

On Monday night the full complement of newly elected directors of the FAI Board met with Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin to update them on the critical condition of the FAI finances and how they were working every minute to find a rescue solution that would work on a number of levels.

First, it would provide certainty to those involved in the sport that there was a plan in place for it to survive here.

Second, by involving Government in the solution either tacitly or explicitly, it would give confidence to the Bank of Ireland and UEFA, key players in the survival plan.

Third, it would enable the Independent Chair and directors who are also agreed by all to be a key part of the future to take a leap of faith in the absence of sight of the Kosi report and come on board.

Wishful thinking

It is a truism at times that nothing is done until everything is done. Talking to Government and getting them to either back the plan or back off the intensity of wishful thinking with regard to ‘grassroots’ football was one of the elements that would help bring it together.

It was explicitly stated on Monday that there was a need for confidentiality. The FAI is a commercial company, one that has been very badly run over a long period of time and is in need of a rescue plan. These things happen in business. Minister ross in a previous life was the Business editor of the Sunday Independent so he would not or should not be unaware of the importance of commercial sensitivity.

But then in front of the Oireachtas Committee yesterday he said that they had been asked for a bailout and named the figure of €18 million.

In Switzerland and on Baggot Street there will have been a sharp intake of breath and a quick recalculation of what the rescue plan would now cost.

Simultaneously in four locations around the country, the putative incoming Chair and independent directors of the Association nervously scratched their ears and thought of what else they could be doing with their time and energy that, in a personal sense, might be less fulfilling and less ‘important’ but which would just be a lot less hassle.

The timeframe of their coming on board just got longer, the likelihood of a stable rescue just became less.

Then the Ministers went on to say that the League of Ireland would likely collapse in the event of the FAI failing.

In the various places where the volunteer directors of the clubs might have been listening there were tables being banged, heads being hung and possibly some cats being kicked. These are the directors either signing off on new investment, putting pen to paper on player contracts, getting sponsors over the line and doing the things that in business, and in sport are what keep the show on the road.

Later in the day, there was a rush to clarify that things might not be so bad, that clubs would be in a position to organise their own fixtures and that it would be grand that UEFA would understand and that the rules in place on clubs or Leagues going under would not apply.

Did anyone think to ask the directors of Waterford who were prevented from playing in Europe because that had ‘reorganised’ their finances and were actually a new entity so thus had to serve their three-year exile from European competition?

Probably not because facts and reality can sometimes just get in the way of an ability to get up and profess unity with the common, decent people of the game whose interests need to be protected.

The sharpest lines of questioning at any Committee meeting I have witnessed, through Horse Racing, Olympics and FAI Crises, have generally come from the far left. In times gone by Clare Daly, despite no obvious grá for the world of horse racing was the one that cut to the chase questioning the Chair of Horse Racing Ireland.

Yesterday it was Jonathan O’Brien, a former Director of Cork City himself who was the one who pointed out the anomaly with trumpeted plans to find alternative ways of funding salaries of development officers but without recognising the ecosystem in which they operate being dependent on the FAI.

He spoke of the potential need for examinership or even liquidation and state funding to take it out of that. It may be what is needed but in such a scenario unsecured creditors will get burned.

Sympathy

Because they are businesses and not volunteers there is a lot less sympathy for them in political circles but for those who might be owed collective millions, it is a major difficulty.

If it is TopLion who provide kit to the international teams and more, how would they feel about the loss of money owed and being asked to still provide the kit for our U21 and Women’s teams playing in European qualification games?

If it is Sportsfile or Inpho who provide the images that light up the sport for fans, can they continue in confidence to send photographers to cover those games?

If it is an Garda Síochána being asked to supply policing at matches, or the printers of programmes, or the suppliers of electricity or… the list goes on.

Last night, at 24 hours notice the Government said that it would provide a €7 million once-off payment to childcare providers so that they could pay that to insurance companies whose rates were higher than previously and which were threatening the ability of some to stay in business.

Back when Ireland was bidding to stage the 2023 rugby World Cup the same Government underwrote a potential cost of €120 million in order to have the bid listened to.

Shocking

Yesterday they dismissed the idea as shocking that they should do similar underwriting, as an exercise in accounting in order to protect one of the most important civic organisations in society and our international reputation

Yesterday we signed off our piece highlighting the role of the Auditors in not flagging this whole sorry mess by saying that yesterday could be a day of possible advance in the salvation of a better FAI. Then political expediency got in the way again and left us at the close with a statement from the FAI’s Paul Cooke, another who knows a thing or three about the reality of business, that painted things in stark reality.

“The Board, management and staff at the FAI are working hard to avoid an insolvency process. We know better than anyone the consequences that would have on our international teams, the League of Ireland and the hundreds of thousands who play football up and down the country every weekend. The Board wants to do what is best for all those stakeholders and for our staff.”

“We made it clear to Government on Monday that the Board is frustrated at the delay in the appointment of an Independent Chairperson and three Independent Directors. Like the Government, the Association wants to see these appointments made immediately.”

“The process to appoint Independent Directors commenced at the earliest possible date following the adoption of the Governance Review Group report but we still don’t know the identity of the nominees for these positions.”

“Until the refinancing package is signed-off, it is unlikely that Independent Directors will be available for appointment. What was said in the Oireachtas today will not help the recruitment process for those Independent Directors.”

“The purpose of the meeting with Government on Monday was to expedite the completion of the refinancing deal, thus allowing the nominated Independent Directors to complete their own due diligence and take up their roles. That remains the priority of the Board.”

Crazy

The crazy thing is that everyone recognises that bad stuff has happened and needs to be chased down so it can never happen again. Government has experience of that.

But the future is what is at stake first and in order to secure that a funding deal is required, the confidence of the new directors needs to be ensured and good people need to be allowed to do what they can, on a voluntary basis.

Others, including those who are paid to do their jobs, have a responsibility to act responsibly in allowing and enabling that to happen.

Read More: Explore our coverage of the FAI Governance story

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