How was Delaney able to behave in this manner?

There was a moment last week when the Brexit process reached a new magnificence.

How was Delaney able to behave in this manner?

There was a moment last week when the Brexit process reached a new magnificence.

Tory MP Mark Francois was on BBC Radio Four and he wasn’t holding back.

In the course of the interview, he accused chancellor Philip Hammond of leading the cause to derail the Brexit project.

Francois is a hardline Brexiteer — and he used the radio interview to send a message to Hammond: “If you’re listening, Mr Hammond, my fraternal message to you is: ‘Up yours!’”

This week, the FAI’s new executive vice-president (and former CEO) John Delaney essentially struck a similar pose when he attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Sport.

By declining to answer basic questions, he stonewalled for hour after epic hour.

Serious unanswered questions still stand, including most pressing ones about the financial relationship between Delaney and the FAI.

Beyond this detail, however, the fundamental question is a straightforward one: How was Delaney able to behave in this manner this week?

The answer to this question gets to the heart of the future direction of the FAI — and of the broader governance of sport.

It should be said, in the first instance, that the position of the Dáil Committee was significantly weakened by the previous antics of members of various Dáil Committees who behaved outrageously towards witnesses who have appeared in front of them.

There have been occasions when the posturing and pouting of politicians on committees has served to attract headlines but not the public interest.

This, ultimately, led to a legal judgment in favour of one such witness and Delaney was able to use that judgment to build a wall around himself.

Allowing for that, there was still enough revealed across a day of questioning to draw certain other conclusions as to why Delaney was permitted to act as he has.

Firstly, Delaney is a skilled political operator whose cultivation of ‘grassroots soccer’ and whose networking skills have allowed him over time to create a position at the heart of a sporting organisation that appears unparalleled in Irish sport.

When future president Lyndon B Johnson, was working his way up the ladder of American politics, he remarked to one of his aides: “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”

And as Johnson’s biographer, Robert A. Caro, noted: Power reveals so much about a person.

The story of Delaney is to be found in how he has sought power and how he has used it.

This brings us to the second point, the governance of the FAI is flawed in the most obvious of ways. It is almost as if Delaney has come to embody Irish soccer and that its future cannot be imagined without him.

Donal Conway
Donal Conway

The words of some of the Association’s officers — notably its president, Donal Conway — are now on the record.

But what of the other members of the board from whom so little has been heard? Their next move is awaited with considerable interest.

Thirdly, in the interface between the state and sporting organisations, there are profound structural weaknesses.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, appears to struggle in any significant discussion of sport.

The expressed ambition of the Department which he manages is: “To increase participation and interest in sport, to improve standards of performance and to develop sports facilities at national, regional and local level, thereby contributing to healthier lifestyles and an improved overall quality of life, through a departmental policy and resource framework in partnership with its agencies, other government departments and the National Governing Bodies of Sport.”

That’s an immense ambition to squeeze into one, barely comprehensible sentence.

With the exception of ribbon-cutting and press releases on the awarding of sports capital grants, the department devolves much of its expressed ambitions to ‘Sport Ireland’.

Sport Ireland has a very clear code of governance for itself. And it also has a National Governing Bodies unit which has distinct compliance criteria.

Among the compliance criteria are the following:

Sport Ireland reserve the right to subject any organisation to a fit for purpose audit if it has cause to believe the sport is in disrepute or is not adhering to its responsibilities as a NGB (National Governing Body).

It also states: “Sport Ireland reserves the right to withdraw, reduce, suspend, or terminate funding to NGBs where there is evidence of non-compliance with the investment criteria.

“Sport Ireland will reserve the right to audit NGBs to ensure they are in compliance with the above policies.”

It’s true Sport Ireland acted this week to suspend funding from the FAI.

But it only did so after weeks of revelations begun by excellent investigative journalism from Mark Tighe in The Sunday Times.

Why has it taken so long for Sport Ireland to act?

Given the emphasis that is placed on the ability of the sporting organisations of the country to deliver the expressed sports’ policy targets of the state, it is dispiriting Sport Ireland should find itself trailing events, reacting to things rather than shaping them.

It is obvious that the governance of the FAI needs change — a long hard look also must be taken at how Sport Ireland goes about its work.

Finally, Delaney was able to act like he did because of the peculiar alignment of the position he has created for himself within the FAI, the flawed governance of that Association, and the inadequacies of state regulation.

But the manner in which both he and the FAI got through this week is not sustainable in the long term.

The days of the current regime are numbered. When it comes down to it, Delaney’s silence made this point most eloquently.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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