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Malachy Clerkin: Redacted emails show FAI would rather look bad than be transparent

Chief executive Jonathan Hill’s overpayment did not need to become a drawn-out saga, so why did the association do everything an organisation does when it is trying to hide something?

There were long stretches of Thursday’s Public Accounts Committee meeting where the only conclusion a reasonable person could draw was that the FAI didn’t care how bad this all looked. That they had made a determination — get through the morning and by lunchtime the outside world would have moved on. Survive the news cycle and hopefully something will break to distract people.

(RTÉ: “Don’t worry, lads — we’ve got you covered.”)

The only thing that links every scandal in every walk of life is that they all eventually come to an end. If you are in the centre of it, you generally have two ways of getting to the other side. The first is to come out and explain everything and get it over with. The second is to run out the clock, in the sure knowledge that people will get bored with hearing about you.

Which option did the FAI choose here? Let’s judge them by their behaviour. In doing so, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the core issue was. Chief executive Jonathan Hill was paid for 12 days of holidays that he didn’t take. He has since repaid the money, in the region of €11,500, to the association. While it is by no means insignificant — especially since it resulted in €6.7 million of Sport Ireland funding to the FAI being withheld for a time — it’s not exactly Watergate.


Even if you take the dimmest possible view of Hill’s actions and you decide that he deliberately pursued a nice little end-of-year bump to his salary — which he denies, to be clear — it’s probably still survivable. A bit grubby and depressingly grasping given that he’s already on over a quarter of a million quid a year. But even in that hypothetical, it needn’t have been overly difficult to style it out.

And if you take them at their word, it should be even easier still. By their account, this was incompetence rather than conspiracy. Hill made a joke in an email, it landed on the desks of finance people who didn’t know it was a joke, the wheels were put in motion without the chief executive knowing. Crossed wires, a lack of clarity, an overpayment that everyone agrees shouldn’t have been made. Once the mistake was discovered, Hill made it right.

So in effect, the FAI’s position is that this whole thing was a case of them accidentally colouring outside the lines, one they tidied up in short order without any lasting damage having been done. If that’s what happened, it’s a positively quaint entry in the association’s history. Previous iterations of the FAI would have given up at least two Poland friendlies a year to get entangled in such a benign class of a balls-up.

You would think, therefore, that explaining the sequence of events to an Oireachtas committee ought to have been a walk in the park. Hill’s opening statement on Thursday should have taken all of 20 seconds to read out: “Listen lads, we don’t need to be wasting anyone’s time here. This happened, it’s our fault, we feel a bit silly about it in all honesty. Here are all the emails, these are all the people you need to talk to, ask us anything you want. We have nothing to hide.”

Instead, here’s how the FAI approached it. They began by asking for the date to be pushed back. When that was denied to them, they broke with parliamentary convention by delivering their submissions at 11.28pm on the night before a 9.30am meeting.

When they did provide them, vast portions of their correspondence were redacted and therefore useless to the committee. When they arrived for the meeting, they did so without two key witnesses — their former finance director and director of people and culture. It seemed unfair on both, but it was the FAI’s choice to play it that way.

Once the committee hearing began, Hill’s approach was maddening to the politicians (who, it should be said, generally did their job with a commendable lack of grandstanding). The FAI chief made out that he had nothing to hide while at the same time doing very little to give light to the things he claimed not to be trying to hide.

He copped to making the initial request but claimed it was meant as a joke. He thereafter washed his hands entirely of the process and claimed that his only interaction was to answer an email at the end of the year asking how many days of holidays he had left to take. He said the next thing he knew of it was 10 weeks later when he was informed that the association had decided to pay him in lieu.

Here’s the best-case scenario news for the FAI. Put all of the above facts together and they look like a laughing stock. They look like a shower of eejits who can’t find their asses with both hands. They look like a clown show who are so incompetent with the people’s money that they can’t be trusted not to take a joke so literally that they dole out a grand a day to their chief executive without him knowing about it.

The worst-case scenario is that people just don’t buy it. It’s that they add all the obfuscations and the redactions and the nothing-to-do-with-me-guvs together and decide that the FAI aren’t being open and honest here. It’s that they form the view that if the FAI can’t be transparent about small potatoes like this, it doesn’t bode well for bigger stuff in the future.

Only last June, the FAI set out a chronically necessary facilities plan that would require an injection of €517 million of taxpayer money across the next 15 years. They need the confidence of the Government now more than ever. Oddly, they could have used the Hill overpayment to grow that confidence — look at us, we made a mistake and we were the best boys in class about publicly doing all we could to fix it.

But by getting lawyered up to the teeth, by citing confidentiality, by trying to delay and hide the facts of the thing, they had to know they would look incredibly bad. To the public, to the Oireachtas, to everyone paying attention. And yet they did it anyway.

It is entirely reasonable to wonder why. What could they not reveal that was worth taking such a big reputational hit over such a minor scandal at such a crucial time?

If the answer lies behind the black lines on those emails, the FAI would be wise to start unredacting them as quickly as possible. Otherwise, this one might not go away as easily as they think.