Fergus Finlay: No grey area in battle to protect our vulnerable racing dogs

Fergus Finlay: No grey area in battle to protect our vulnerable racing dogs

Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns is seeking to move a Dáil motion tomorrow to begin the process of defunding the greyhound racing industry.

I was raised on Charles Dickens, by a mother who believed his books were children’s stories. But actually an awful lot of Dickens is grim. I loved him anyway, so maybe introducing me to Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby at the age of 8 or 9 was the right thing to do.

Mind you, at that age, there’s an awful lot of stuff you don’t know. Like, what a beadle is.

Mr Bumble was a beadle (a sort of petty town clerk, apparently). He had some power in the village where Oliver Twist grew up, and bullied his way around the workhouse in which Oliver spent his early childhood. He had a vision of himself that far exceeded his abilities.

Mr Bumble is responsible for one of the most famous quotations in all of Dickens, however. Late in the novel, he is accused of damaging property. 

His defence is that it was his wife what done it. The lawyer quizzing him dismisses the excuse. Anything a wife did in those days she was assumed to have done on the direction of her husband.

Mr Bumble drew himself up to his full height. “If the law supposes that," said he, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass — a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience …"

Let’s not get involved in the argument about wives and husbands and all that. Let’s agree with Mr Bumble’s basic point instead. A bad law is a bad thing.

But actually, there is something worse than a bad law, especially in a country that prides itself on its tradition of parliamentary democracy. And that’s a bad law passed without debate, vote or dissent. Essentially in secret.

Last Tuesday a Junior Minister in the Department of the Taoiseach, Jack Chambers, stood up in the Dáil and said this (it probably takes longer to read than it did to say – and it took about 90 seconds to say) “I move: That the proposal that Dáil Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft: Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2020; copies of which were laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 13th November, 2020, be referred to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine, in accordance with Standing Order 95(5), which, not later than 25th November, 2020, shall send a message to the Dáil in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 101, and Standing Order 100(2) shall accordingly apply.” 

That 90 seconds was all there was – except that there was an identical 90 seconds in the Seanad. The regulations are gone to a committee now. The committee can debate them if it likes (it doesn’t have to). But it must send a one-line message back to the Dáil by tomorrow, the 25th. Once the Dáil gets that one-line message, the regulations become law.

That’s how they make law in Ireland in respect of horses and greyhounds. What that incomprehensible piece of gobbledegook I quoted above means is actually quite extraordinary. It gives effect in law to the money that has been ring-fenced from your taxes and mine for the horse and greyhound racing industry in Ireland.

It has been ring-fenced since 2001 – almost 20 years. 

And in that time the total amount of taxpayer’s money the industry is guaranteed is – hold your breath - € 1,461,991,713. That’s no typo – in 20 years, we’ve given them just under one and a half billion euro. 

And the reason the regulations need to be passed now is so we can give them extra this year and next.

I could probably write reams about the horse-racing industry. But what is most inexplicable, most scandalous, most indefensible about all of that is that buried in the middle of it there’s a proposal to give the greyhound industry another €2.5m next year, to bring its annual subsidy over €20m.

All of that will go to a semi-state company. It used to be called Bord na gCon, but it’s now rebranding itself (for what reason isn’t clear) as Greyhound Racing Ireland (GRI for short). 

On the GRI's new website  the Preferred Results report, commissioned by Bord na gCon a couple of years ago, is hard to find. It was forced to publish bits of it after a devastating Prime Time programme last year into the cruelty implicit in the  industry – although   the entire report was never published.

It found that, in reality, Bord na gCon’s role was not to promote racing, but to promote breeding. And it promoted the breeding of 10 times more dogs than are needed for racing. The report tries to avoid saying so explicitly but cannot escape the conclusion that (at least) 6,000 what they call “underperforming” dogs are killed each year. And this happens under the watchful eye of a state agency.

It can’t even do the racing bit right. According to its own annual report 462,709 “patrons” attended its 1,606 race meetings last year. I did the sums three times, because I couldn’t believe the calculator. The average attendance at these meetings, at which the company doled out €10m in prize money, was 288 people per meeting.

That’s commercial insanity, and it’s reflected, year after year, in the company’s accounts. It spends half of every euro we give it on prizes, for races held in mostly empty, tumbledown kips. 

And crucially – there’s no escaping this point – dogs that can’t compete for prizes get killed. In their thousands.

Incidentally, you can find, easily enough on their website, Bord na gCon’s six-page complaint to the Broadcasting Authority about the brilliant Prime Time expose of the industry last year. Sadly, it never published the Broadcasting Authority’s investigation, which rejected the complaint in its entirety, and found instead that “the programme was a comprehensive exploration of the topic in a factual manner which was fair, objective and impartial”.

Guaranteeing ring-fenced millions to this industry is entirely indefensible. Doing it in the under-the-counter way that is proposed is scandalous.

Holly Cairns, a Social Democrat TD, with the support of her party, is seeking to move a Dáil motion tomorrow to begin the process of defunding this organisation. 

I was going to say it’s a brave thing to do, and it is – but actually it is a common sense thing to do. I really hope she wins – and beats the system in the process.

Leave aside the barbarism involved – this is a fundamental waste of public money. Dublin Zoo and Fota for example, exist to protect animals. 

They entertain and educate nearly 1.5m  children and adults a year – three times more than greyhound racing. Let’s send the money where it can do some good, and finally begin to end this sick joke that masquerades as an industry worthy of our support.

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