Damning criticisms made of Donegal GAA in report

Karl Lacey stepped down as Donegal’s Academy coach earlier this year which prompted a review of the county’s affairs
Karl Lacey stepped down as Donegal’s Academy coach earlier this year which prompted a review of the county’s affairs

AN independent review has found numerous failings within Donegal GAA officialdom surrounding the financial practices and governance structures on behalf of the executive committee.

The report comes on the back of the high-profile resignation of Academy head coach Karl Lacey and 40 volunteer coaches in January who felt they could no longer work with the county board.

In an interview with the Donegal Democrat last Christmas, Lacey bemoaned the lack of close ties between the Academy and the county board's coaching officer, describing it as "adrift".

The ‘Review of Donegal GAA Talent Academy, Finance and Governance structures’, released to the clubs late on Wednesday night, runs to 39 pages and notes 14 ‘high-risk’ findings relating to governance and financial management, describing them as “significant weaknesses”.

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The six-person review team, drawn from Croke Park and Ulster GAA officials, also lists ‘medium’ (eight) and ‘low-risk’ (two) areas where improvements in the running of GAA affairs in the county are required.

One of the ‘high-risk’ observations made by the review committee was the weakness in Donegal GAA’s online banking approval processes and how single authorised payments could be made.

No financial impropriety is assumed in any of the report's findings.

The report did note: “All financial spend, fundraising, promotion (including social media), projects etc., should be carried out under the management of the County Management Committee.”

This was in direct reference to alleged attempts to fundraise outside the auspices of the county board for the Academy.

A bank account was set up in June 2022 called, ‘Friends of Donegal Youth Academy’ – but no transactions were made.

“It has been confirmed that a cheque was made out to a member of the Academy set-up for €250 for a night out for the Academy personnel,” the report read.

“There has been speculation that other funding had been gathered but these claims have not been substantiated by supporting evidence.”

The detailed report also drew attention to a ‘conflict of interest’ in how the county committee’s financial affairs were audited.

“Some members of County Committee are employed or consultants of County Committee.”

The review committee felt this could damage the integrity of the executive and that a ‘declaration of interest’ at each meeting was required.

“The audited accounts for Donegal GAA are required to be audited in accordance with current Accounting Standards and should be prepared with greater transparency to ensure better understanding for those who are approving them.

“To maintain independence, it would be advisable for the County auditor to review their ability to remain as a member of the County Committee.”

The report went on to criticise the processes of how managerial appointments were made, noted the lack of county fundraising initiatives since 2020 and the pressing need for an appointment of a ‘Head of Operations’ - a chief executive, in other words - to oversee the implementation of its recommendations and setting up an “interim Academy Lead Group” consisting of a maximum of five people with representatives from Central Council and Ulster Council.

This group would report directly to the ‘Head of Operations’.

“The re-engagement and retention of the academy squad coaches is a priority,” the report stressed.

In relation to managerial appointments, the report said: “It is recommended that a fully transparent selection process is put in place for any future team management processes”, adding that it was “advisable” that the “selection panel members do not become liaison/advisers of the appointed management team”.

It is understood two members of the selection committee became part of the subsequent senior management team, led by Paddy Carr, who later resigned after a poor run of results.

Head coach Aidan O’Rourke and Paddy Bradley subsequently assumed the senior managerial reins and have qualified for the next round of the All-Ireland series.

In March, Irish News journalist Cahair O’Kane carried out an investigation into the events that prompted Lacey and 40 coaches to step down, leaving the county’s underage structures in disarray and the lauded Academy at a crossroads.

Lacey’s departure was lamented by a host of high-profile GAA people within the county, including former senior inter-county manager Declan Bonner and ex-players Eamon McGee and Anthony Molloy.

The review team consisted of Ciaran McLaughlin (Ulster GAA chairman), Shane Flanagan (Director of Games Development), Michelle McAleer (Head of internal audit), Jack Cooney (National player development lead), Seamus Kenny (National participation and programmes manager) and Roger Keenan (Coaching development manager).

Together, the review committee carried out 44 individual calls and meetings with county board members, former county officers, Talent Academy personnel, fundraisers, auditor and financial support personnel and ex-Donegal players.

The review members also engaged heavily in group meetings with Academy coaches, parents of academy players, club representatives and minor committee members.

The Academy’s development work was praised in the report and was strongly supported by the testimony of parents while also noting the county executive “invested significantly” in the Academy’s programme.

Commending the “huge number of committed and enthusiastic coaches” volunteering within the Academy, the report added several coaches did not have the required Garda vetting, child safeguarding or coaching qualifications and that better communication was required with clubs.

The report also advised a “rebranding” of Club Donegal and pointed to the successful fundraising models in Antrim, Tyrone, Derry and Fermanagh.

The report is detailed and prescriptive in what needs to happen in Donegal – but that alone doesn't get the Academy's wheels turning as they should as invaluable time has already been lost in developing the young footballers in the county.