PADDY HEANEY: Armagh woes show need for checks and balances

In the copy of the Ulster secretary’s report that was sent to the media last month €2,798,435 was completely unaccounted for.

When outlining the Ulster Council’s finances, secretary Danny Murphy revealed the body’s income was €6,059,080. The report confirmed that gate receipts were €1,578,510 and that grant revenue totalled €1,682,135. Add those two figures together and you get €3,260,645.

So what about the remaining €2,798,435? Where did that come from? The sky? Readers of the report were left none the wiser.

But then, the Ulster Council knew the report would be read by the media who would disseminate the information to the public. Historically, the Ulster Council has always taken the view the less information given to the media and the public, the better.

But this is not to say that there is anything shady about the Ulster Council’s finances. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every delegate who attended the Ulster Convention in Monaghan was presented with a full set of audited accounts. There was total transparency. Every penny was accounted for. The ‘missing’ cash came from commercial and marketing contracts (circa €1.4m) while government funding netted roughly €1.6m.

It was all laid out in black and white. And, as other units of the GAA have now learned, that’s they way it has to be.

After living in a financial black hole for the last three years, the Armagh County Board is finally starting to see some light.

The origins of Armagh’s crisis can be dated back to 2011. Records from a board meeting held on October 1 2011 reveal that two officials had become so frustrated about the county’s finances that they were on the brink of resigning.

The problem was accountability. Nobody knew what was going on. The accounts weren’t audited.

A county board member outlined the prevalent culture of the time.

“You would hear through the grapevine that a new coach or medical person was at training. You would ask: ‘Who okayed that?’ You would ask: ‘Who is paying for him?’ Nobody would be able to tell you.”

After trying and failing to work out what was happening within their own county, senior members of Armagh’s executive committee asked Croke Park to bring in the auditors.

Deloitte got the job. If they knew what lay ahead of them, the whiz kids at Deloitte would probably have turned the contract down.

Deloitte’s report was damning. To describe Armagh’s situation, they had to create a new word. They said the county’s finances were: “inauditable”.

Again, there was no suggestion of misappropriation of funds. The problem was the method.

Deloitte’s report concluded with a list of 50 recommendations. To satisfy Croke Park, Armagh had to provide a comment on each of the 50 points, highlighting the action they would take to rectify the problem.

It’s also worth noting that not all of Armagh’s financial problems stemmed from poor practice. Other failings contributed to the county’s woes.

For example, it’s estimated the county board is owed £80,000 (€96,385) in unpaid club fees. When the recession hit, some clubs stopped paying their fees to the board. The board failed to take any action.

However, it’s understood that Armagh’s officials are set to introduce a zero tolerance policy. Clubs that don’t pay their fees this year will not be allowed to compete in Féile, the first underage competition of the year. And if the fees remained unpaid, one county board source stated “there will be no fixtures for them.”

Improved management has enabled the county board to make some incredible turnarounds. This may seem hard to believe, but the huge car park that sits beside The Athletic Grounds was actually being run at a loss. No more. Last year, the car park turned a profit of £4,000 (€4,819).

After years of spending with gay abandon on the county team, the board has now tightened its purse strings. In the good old days, they footed the bill for the senior squad’s gym membership. That no longer happens.

Armagh have started to follow the procedures that have been established in counties like Tyrone and Derry.

At the start of each season, the main officials in the Tyrone and Derry county boards sit down with their manager, captain, and the players’ representatives from the GPA. The budget for the team is outlined so the manager and players know exactly how much cash is available.

While Club Tyrone raised a staggering €525,000 last year, the Red Hands are prudent in their spending. Occasionally, they will go to Carlton House in Kildare for a training weekend, but more often than not, they simply train at their new purpose-built complex in Garvaghey.

Derry operate a similar system. While other counties will stay at a hotel when they are doing a day long Saturday session, the Oak Leafers use their facilities at Owenbeg. Outside caterers cook the lunchtime meal which is served in the new canteen.

Some of the more tightly run boards in Ulster try to do all their spending via purchase order so there is a paper trail of every financial transaction.

While all these checks and balances might sound very prim and proper, and at odds with the culture of trust which exists in the GAA, it’s difficult to see how the modern county board can be run any other way.

The GAA is now generating and spending huge sums of cash. Last year the Ulster Council spent €5,786,045. That’s a lot of receipts.

County Boards areessentially not-for-profit businesses that are handling hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Thirty years ago, the county secretary sat in the dugout and wrote slips for the substitutes. Treasurers made sure the players didn’t steal the shorts and socks.

By and large, those officials were men of total integrity, who devoted their lives to the GAA. But that is no longer enough.

Analyse the county boards that are well run and a common trend emerges. While not always in the foreground, or listed among the elected officers, there is usually a backroom team of accountants and successful businessmen.

And supporters should be warned. If men of that calibre aren’t in your county board team, then your football and hurling teams are going nowhere.


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