The arrest of the Olympic Council of Ireland boss for ticket-touting is the culmination of years of arrogance by an organisation that wouldn’t answer to anyone, writes political editor, Daniel McConnell
WHAT a difference three days make.
Last Sunday night in a balmy Rio, Sports Minister Shane Ross landed in the Brazilian capital for his well-publicised showdown with Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI).
Ross, flanked by his official, Ken Spratt, confronted Hickey and his deputy, William O’Brien, for an hour.
Ross demanded independent oversight into the OCI’s internal inquiry into the two-week-old ticket scandal. Ross met what he described as a “brick wall”.
“Yes, we were stonewalled and I was absolutely shattered by his attitude on Monday night,” Ross told me in Dublin Airport on Thursday.
While the event was reported as Ross being taught a lesson in politics by the wily, 71-year-old Hickey, the refusal to co-operate was outrageous arrogance from a body that got €1.7m from the taxpayer for this Olympic Games.
The perception was that Ross had come away from the meeting empty-handed, but during the “full and frank” meeting, Ross had asked Hickey and O’Brien some pointed questions.
“The principle question I asked, on Monday, was the one about accepting independence, or at least an independent member on the inquiry.
“That was the principle one and that was turned down absolutely flat. After that, I asked a series of questions on the issues you mentioned about Pro10 and THG, and others.
“I asked all those questions and a series of others and, after that, he said, because of legal advice, he could not answer any questions whatsoever,” Ross told me.
On all counts, Hickey refused.
He did so on the basis of legal advice and that the OCI is independent of government.
Ross was told to take a hike.
Afterwards, the two men gave dramatically differing accounts of the meeting.
Hickey described the encounter as “excellent” and said the OCI had refused the minister’s request as, “under senior counsel advice, we are carrying out our own investigation, which has already started and we are not investigating ourselves, we are investigating the trail of the tickets and what has happened”.
Hickey said Ross had agreed to meet him for dinner later in the week.
Ross was whistling a different tune.
“We just met a brick wall,” Ross said. “I have said, all along, I don’t think the OCI inquiry is credible, because they are a major player in this particular controversy.
“So, I think it would have been far preferable, and more sensible, and it would have been a credible committee in which I could have had confidence, if there was an independent to sit on it. Now, I feel that the committee is flawed from the beginning.”
Ross added that the OCI is taxpayer-funded and that there is a reputational issue. “The reputation of Ireland has to be upheld and the credibility of Ireland, and Irish inquiries of this sort, have to be sustained,” he added. “We met a situation where a body that is supported by the taxpayer is now refusing to let representatives of that taxpayer be part of this inquiry.
“It is something I take extremely seriously and the mood was very, very sombre indeed.
“It is a terrible spectacle and I think the OCI simply has its head in the sand over this issue,” he said.
“I think they feel, somehow, they are above accountability to the Irish people and to the Government and that situation cannot be allowed to continue.”
Just three days later, Hickey’s world came crashing down around him, when he opened his door to Brazilian police officers, who took him into custody.
As revealed in dramatic video footage, at 6am local time on Wednesday, officers went to the hotel room of his son to act on the arrest warrant.
Hickey, we were told, was facing three charges — ticket-touting, operating or involvement of a cartel, and illicit marketing.
Hickey is not merely the head of the Irish Olympic body, he is a cardinal of world Olympics administration, one of 15 vice-presidents who hold huge sway across the globe.
His arrest was not just a big story in Ireland, it was a massive story from Australia to America.
It, too, was also a game-changer in terms of the political response from government here.
Instantly, the OCI’s internal inquiry became moot and a full independent inquiry, led by a senior legal figure, will now happen.
“Things have moved a long way since Monday. Now, I think you will find we have a really independent inquiry and we have moved to that stage,” Ross said. Will the OCI accept that?
“They won’t have any option,” he said sternly.
Having previously told the minister where to go, the OCI performed a massive u-turn yesterday, saying it would now “co-operate fully” with the State’s inquiry.
“The Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) confirms that it will cooperate fully with any State inquiry into its handling of ticketing arrangements for the Rio Olympics.
“The OCI will now also commission its own independent inquiry into the ticketing arrangements for Rio 2016. The previously announced internal inquiry by the OCI has been discontinued,” the statement said.
Now, other than Hickey’s arrest, what led to this remarkable volte face?
I, along with others throughout the week, have argued that the Government should pull funding from the OCI, until they fall into line.
As we reported on our front page on Thursday morning, Ross and his officials were already considering such a move.
Certainly, the OCI’s commitment to co-operating fully is welcome, but the proof will be in the pudding when the inquiry is up-and-running.
How can it square cooperating fully with O’Brien’s petulant statement, outside the Rio hospital where Hickey was being treated after his arrest? O’Brien said that the OCI would defend itself “to the hilt”.
Ultimately, this is about good governance and the transparency of an organisation which is part funded by the taxpayer.
Issues arise in agencies where a small group of people hold power for too long, and the time has come for the OCI to perform an overhaul of its structures.
If it is unwilling to reform, then its very future must be called into question.
This is not about Pat Hickey or Shane Ross, or any individual. This is about preparing and ensuring our athletes have the best support in their bid for Olympic success.
The events of the last two weeks have shown how poorly the OCI has served its athletes and they, and the Irish taxpayer, deserve a hell of a lot better.
If the OCI is not prepared to get its house in order, then the Government must not be afraid to put it out of commission.
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