Today, lets talk about a political grenade of significantly less seriousness than rent or insurance, but one that is certainly close to many peoples hearts all the same.
The Football Association of Ireland is a basket case of an organisation, that has rightfully endured an extended period of national humiliation over the last while as it became frightfully clear how badly run it was. The debt, the mismanagement, the slithering departure from the stage of one John Delaney, it would all have been quite entertaining if it wasn’t so mortifying.
Why does any of this matter to the general election of 2020? Well, because the FAI has been looking for public funds to shore up their accounts and, essentially, bailout the idiots steering the boat. No matter how things end up, the FAI will continue to be an entity that applies for and receives grants and other such funding, and will continue to be the nominal authority of other entities, like the clubs of the League of Ireland to give just one example, that will also be looking for such funds. And it is the organisation behind the most popular sport in Ireland, in terms of viewership and participation, the entity behind the national teams that remain one of the most obvious examples of the country’s representation on the international stage. Now, two months out from a make-or-break trip to Slovakia, the men’s team face the very real possibility that the FAI could tank completely, which would leave them disenfranchised, a footballing non-entity.
For these reasons and more, sorting out the FAI is something that should be considered an election issue, and its a nice change of pace to consider such things away from the waffle on Garda numbers, pumping imaginary money into healthcare and who deserves the most credit for dealing with Brexit. What are the parties positions on the FAI, both in terms of its immediate financing requirements, and future governance?
You have to be careful judging Fine Gael’s opinion, since the government minister who dealt with the entire affair the most wasn’t a member of Fine Gael. I have little time for Shane Ross, but I did feel he treated the FAI appropriately in most respects, taking a hardline that was badly required, though whether it would have stayed hard for long if the government had continued is another matter entirely. Late in the year, the Oireachtas Chair for the Committee on Sport, Fergus O’Dowd, claimed the government was willing to provide funding to the FAI, but not in the form of a “blank cheque”, and further suggested that UEFA should be coughing up much needed funds, perhaps to a greater extent than the government. All a bit vague and wishy-washy, the kind of thing no one wants to touch with too much substance. Their manifesto does not mention the FAI.
Fianna Fail’s official comments on the matter focused on the nebulous area of “grassroots football” and keeping that funded through the crisis, and taking a few swipes at Shane Ross for not doing it properly. I suppose financial impropriety in a body in large part funded by the state, and run by a man appointed during Fianna Fail’s disastrous tenure, might make them a little bit sheepish to say much more. Their manifesto backs up these vague statements, implying that a Fianna Fail government will get UEFA onside and reform the FAI with their help (the same UEFA that just praised Delaney to high heaven.
Sinn Fein have a bit more substance, thanks to their representative on the designated Oirechtas Committee, Jonathan O’Brien, who tore into the FAI with gusto throughout the crisis, in a manner that was badly required and motivated by experience. He’s retiring from the Dail now, and has spoken about his desire to follow on from his LOI days and take up a role with the FIFA as part of any reform movement. Other than that its the standard pronouncements that reform is needed: I am open to correction, but I don’t think the party has made a comment on the record about the possibility of bailing out the FAI. Their manifesto however, does not mention the issue specifically.
Labour, as they should do I suppose, have mostly limited their comments on the matter to the more rank-and-file members of the FAI who have had their jobs and wages threatened by the crisis, which is fair enough. Labour Senator Aodhan O’Riordan was one of many to speak out against the perceived arrogance of the FAI refusing to accept invitations to Oireachtas Committee hearings. As with Sinn Fein, I don’t believe that the party has a position on a possible bail-out. Their manifesto calls for a portion of gambling levies to be ring-fenced to support football and the FAI, an interesting idea.
Solidarity-PBP, through Ruth Coppinger, eviscerated the FAI panel when they did deign to appear at the Oireachtas. I understand that members of the group have called for a restructuring in the way that grants and other financial incentives are given out, with encouragement of the various stakeholders in Irish football to come together and plan things themselves. They stop short of endorsing a bailout, and knowing Solidarity-PBP, they are unlikely to advocate such a course. I do not believe that Independents4Change’s sole representative, Joan Collins, has posited an opinion publicly.
I am unable to find any reference to the FAI crisis by a member of the Green Party. Nothing in their manifesto either.
The Social Democrats, through Catherine Murphy, have called for a total reform in how the FAI operates, as well as criticising the auditing agencies that did not exactly rein the FAI’s spending in when they had a chance. They have indicated that the FAI may be in need of additional funding in the future, but that this will not meet with their approval until changes occur at every level of the organisation. They do not mention the FAI directly in their manifesto.
Aontu, through Peadar Toibin, used the crisis to call for the creation of an All-Ireland football association, but offered nothing in the way of specifics for how this could actually be achieved. The party has not given any other indications of its opinions, and sport is not brought up in their manifesto at all as far as I can see.
It’s not very inspiring, is it? The general sense of shock, annoyance and disgust with what has happened with the FAI is good to see, but in terms of concrete reactions and suggestions with what to do now, I can’t see any party that has a line you would describe as firm and substantial. Some, like Solidarity-PBP and the Social Democrats have made noises in the right direction.
In a way this makes clear how thorny an issue this is. Nobody wants to say “We should bailout the FAI” or equivalent because that would annoy people for whom financial bailouts bring memories of the worst parts of the last ten years. But leaving the FAI to sink to the bottom of the proverbial ocean would carry consequences down the line – degradation of “grassroots” football, huge uncertainty for the LOI and the disenfranchisement of the national sides – that no party wants to be blamed for, either through action or inaction. So we get lots of strongly worded condemnation and vague insistence that something must be done, but that’s about it. Whoever is involved in the next government has quite the Gordian knot to tackle with the FAI, and one suspects that however it turns out, the public at large will be unhappy. But that’s politics for you.