Right people for the job?

ONE of Simon Coveney’s first ministerial board appointments saw a key election organiser for his Cabinet colleague Phil Hogan installed as the chairman of the Irish Greyhound Board in Apr 2011.

Carlow businessman Phil Meaney was put in after political lobbying by a Fine Gael TD and, according to Mr Coveney, extensive consultation with the industry.

Regardless of his credentials in business, the decision flew in the face of a pre-election commitment to publicly vet such candidates. The minister said this was an exemption.

There was an urgency required, Mr Coveney said, to deal with problems in the semi-state company and a vacuum in leadership.

To make amends, he promised the appointment of Mr Hogan’s local organiser to the €21,000-a-year post was conditional on his confirmation by an Oireachtas committee.

In the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny stressed that such an interview would and should happen, to ensure “openness and transparency”.

“[Mr Meaney] will have to go before the appropriate agriculture committee to give his views on how the board should be run, his vision for it, the competencies he brings to the position, and how he views the future for the board,” he said.

“As in all other cases, that will be available as a public discourse between the committee dealing with agriculture and the appointee to Bord na gCon.”

Mr Meaney’s appearance before that Oireachtas committee did not happen. He has never been publicly vetted or questioned about his role, despite what the Taoiseach and the minister promised.

In a statement, the department said that, in the two years, there just was no time to bring him in for an hour-long hearing.

“With regard to the attendance by the chairman at the Oireachtas committee, while the chairman was available to the committee, the opportunity for a hearing did not materialise due to the work schedule of the committee,” it said.

This year, new chairmen were appointed to the boards of Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish National Stud. Both of these have already been publicly vetted and approved by the committee.

The department’s failure to fulfil a simple promise has happened at a time when scandal after scandal has left the Irish Greyhound Board in a perilous financial state.

Integrity issues have emerged, internal reports have criticised the firm, attendances have fallen, and debt levels have continued to rise.

One director, who has since left the board, demanded Mr Meaney consider his position after a perceived attempt to hinder an independent investigation into a race-fixing scam in Dundalk and a doping investigation in Cork.

This did not happen. Shortly afterwards, this director was replaced on the board in a move which saw three fresh political appointments made by Mr Coveney. Each of the board members have business and professional skills which they bring to the table, but they also have political connections.

These three were:

* Brendan Moore, who was heavily involved with the Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association;

* Tony McNamee, who was involved in the Irish Coursing Club and supported with the Fine Gael organisation in Kildare;

* Matt Murphy, a highly successful Galway hurling manager who was a college friend of Mr Kenny.

They joined three directors serving from a previous era.

* Billy O’Dwyer, a greyhound auctioneer who had been in place since Michael Lowry insisted on his appointment in order to support Bertie Ahern’s government.

* Teresa Wall, who is an accountant in Charlie McCreevy’s old firm and has served with the IGB for a long time;

* Tim Gilbert, who had been a constituency supporter/activist for Seamus Brennan, the former sports minister.

However, one of the recent appointments which Mr Coveney made — without recourse to any committee — has now hit out at the state this patronage culture has left the organisation in.

Brendan Moore, who was appointed to the IGB in late 2011, wrote in a letter: “I am a member of the board for 20 months now and in that time the industry has continued to increase losses and regulatory functions continue to be breached.

“[Political influence] has served Bord na gCon very badly and the commercial and regulatory awareness of the board in the present and past has led the industry to its present position.”

In the wake of his letter, the department defended all of the appointments.

“The board has a mix of skills and competencies including knowledge of the greyhound racing industry. The individual board member in question was appointed on the basis of his depth of knowledge of the greyhound industry,” it said.

The company said Mr Moore’s views should have been raised internally first.

“This is regrettable, as it would reasonably be expected that he would have regarded the board of IGB as the correct forum to raise these issues in the first instance. Had they been raised, his lack of awareness of the current operations of IGB might have been addressed and the damage to the organisation avoided,” it said.

The issues raised in Mr Moore’s letter had been made by him before, although first directed internally rather than at the minister.

MR MOORE’S letter said political activity was an old issue. “The problems in the greyhound industry are not new and are rooted in political interference, lack of accountability... There have been attempts before and reports have been written but primarily ignored. The appetite has not been present in political circles to tackle the industry properly,” he said.

The political connections of the board have surfaced because the tenure of Mr Meaney, Mr Moore, and others has witnessed a string of controversies for the already tarnished public body.

Publicly, the organisation has continued to enjoy unwavering support from Mr Coveney.

Last week, the newly appointed junior minister for the industry, Tom Hayes, underscored this with a speech in Thurles. His predecessor, Shane McEntee, said if other groups were run as well as at the IGB, the country would be better off.

The company has learned from the Taoiseach and the minister’s insincere commitment to transparency in appointments.

For instance, a freedom of information request to obtain Mr Meaney’s expenses has been refused and is under appeal with the Information Commissioner.

This is despite a 35% increase in board members’ expenses in 2011.

And the problems keep coming. The Public Accounts Committee has said it wants answers to allegations levelled by the Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association.

There are more issues which will emerge before the Public Accounts Committee gets to decide what it will do with the Fine Gael minister, his Fine Gael junior, and the party organiser running the board.

Mr Moore’s letter said the political involvement in the company had compromised its effectiveness and the industry was now on the brink of collapse.

He said it was specialist skills that should be sought out and political affiliations dispensed with.

However, the IGB disputed this and said it had the ability to move the company forward and it was doing so.

The department maintained that, regardless of political connections, the directors were the right people for the job.

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