This is the story of a little Irish company. We, the people of Ireland, own it. It’s a commercial, semi-State company. But it defies the definition of commercial, and it is 100% dependent on the State. It would more accurately be called a non-viable State company, with no future, except to be a continuing drain on tax revenue.
In 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available, its total net income was just under €18m. It lost money on all aspects of its main business. It had a turnover of €22m, but cost half-a-million more than that to run. Its administration costs, including board costs, were €2m. Its income included €16m from the taxpayer.
Without that €16m, the company would be trading recklessly. Because it lost money on all aspects of its core business, it wouldn’t even cover its administrative expenses without State subsidy.
But that’s OK, apparently. The subsidy is guaranteed, under a law passed by us, the people of Ireland, in 2001. Under the terms of this law, we have kindly given this company a grand total of just about €240m. No questions asked, no real accountability needed.
And, as Prime Time Investigates has revealed, this company presides over a regime of waste and neglect, a neglect that has resulted in barbarous cruelty, at home and abroad.
The company is Bord na gCon, which describes itself as responsible for the control and development of the greyhound industry in Ireland. In its published documents, it says that its top priority is the welfare of animals.
But Bord na gCon has been subject to two damning reports in the last five years. The first was conducted by the respected group, Indecon. It was damning, to put it mildly, highlighting falling attendances, falling revenue, a seriously under-funded pension scheme, pathetic governance, and a huge and unwieldy management team.
There were enough question marks in that report to raise a serious issue about the future of the company. But still, the subsidy continued, apparently without any significant scrutiny.
The subsidy has an interesting history. Back in 2001, two members of the government, with a strong interest in racing, decided to set up a Horse and Greyhound Racing Industry Fund. The legislation provided that, into the future, every cent raised in betting taxes would be given back to the industry, subject to an annual minimum payment. Four fifths of the money would go to the horses, and one fifth to the dogs.
That one fifth is the €16m Bord na gCon gets now. (Incidentally, in the period that the dogs got a quarter of a billion, the horse-racing industry got more than €1bn.) This is the only example in the context of Irish public finance of ring-fenced taxation, where one sector is absolutely guaranteed an income from tax revenue — in this case, every cent of the income and a bit more besides.
Sick children don’t benefit from ring-fenced taxation. Neither do people with mental health challenges, nor elderly people, nor homeless people. Nobody does, in fact, except horses and greyhounds.
At least, when you look at the book of estimates, the State sets some targets for Horse Racing Ireland, the other main beneficiary of this largesse, in terms of attendances, bloodstock sales, and tote betting. But apart from giving €16m to Bord na gCon, the book of estimates doesn’t mention them at all.
The second report into the greyhound industry is the more recent one, by a company called Preferred Results. Bord na gCon had no intention of publishing this report at all, until it discovered that Prime Time Investigates had a copy, and then they published some of it. (Not the parts relating to company structure and organisational skills and competencies, which had been heavily criticised in the earlier, Indecon report. You’d wonder why, wouldn’t you?)
But the parts they did publish established, beyond doubt, what an important piece of public service broadcasting the Prime Time Investigates programme was. It was also a programme that was really hard to watch, because it was pretty frank in its description of the barbarism inflicted on our unwanted dogs.
But it was based on the essential finding of the Preferred Results report, which was that Bord na gCon isn’t centrally focused on greyhound racing at all. Its primary focus is on breeding dogs. And it is responsible — 100% responsible — for the fact that far more dogs are bred than are needed within the industry.
Many of those that aren’t exported are killed. And some of those that are exported are subjected to barbarous cruelty. I found it hard to sleep after watching a defenceless animal being plunged into a filthy cauldron, to be boiled alive.
Of course, Bord na gCon issued a statement after the programme, condemning the “irresponsible minority” that treats dogs badly. But Preferred Results, in a rather kind codicil to its report, said that it was possible that Bord na gCon could eventually become a financially viable organisation, drug-free, and with an impeccable record on animal welfare. “The future now depends,” they say, “on the choices made by the organisation”.
Give me a break. This is a company propped up by a guaranteed State subsidy. Without that subsidy, they would be gone overnight. The industry they are supposed to be promoting, regulating, and developing is in irreversible decline.
And, now, it has become a by-word for cruelty. Bord na gCon doesn’t know how to stop what’s going on, because they have no control over the number of dogs being bred. In fact, their answers in front of a recent Oireachtas committee suggest they don’t know how to count those numbers.
It’s surely time, after all these years, to call this out for what it is. These subsidies were put in place to enable industries to be developed because they were seen (putting it kindly) as vital to Irish life, and particularly Irish rural life. The original legislation was time-limited, because nobody wanted to admit that this would be a permanent subsidy. It has been extended several times.
But a quarter of a billion euro later, we are subsidising an industry whose main focus is breeding dogs so they can be killed, in their thousands. And that’s before we start talking about hare-coursing, a barbarous activity that has been banned throughout the civilised world.
They will say, of course, that hare-coursing doesn’t get State money, but hare-coursing would find it hard to survive without the greyhound racing industry.
As I said, it’s time to call it what it is. There is only one word for a situation in which taxpayers’ money has been poured into a dog-breeding and dog-killing industry, with no end in sight. That word is scandal. And it’s time that scandal was brought to an end. There’s a thousand better ways of spending our money. Personally, I can’t think of a worse one.