Let's start with a little thought experiment. Imagine Paddy Power was in the news for a record fine. The crime in this imaginary scenario is a build-up of thousands of breaches of contract with their customers in a scandal that spanned 18 years of operation. In fact, let's not choose Paddy Power specifically – let's make it to the entire bookmaking industry, with rights to a total of 57 different rule violations that had affected 41,000 customer accounts. It would not be a great look.
Okay, let's leave the bookmakers alone about this. Only this time can they take the moral height.
How about we hang the taxes around the neck of the beverage industry instead? Come on Diageo and friends. Let's say – and again, before the lawyers get jerky, these are just empty hypotheses – let's say that Guinness was found guilty of 53 of their clients losing property, of which 13 were family homes. Or that once the scandal was revealed and even after they had admitted liability, they still delayed corrective action to make it up to some of the customers they had violated, leaving them years without compensation.
Yeah, yeah, okay. You can put down the red pen, my learned friends. The beverage industry has nothing to do with this. Pure as a whistle on this one.
Ah, what the hell. Let's run nuclear power entirely. For the sake of this argument, let's make it Saudi. In this scenario, it is Mohammed bin Salman and the public investment fund who have fallen ill against the authorities and have acknowledged dozens of cases of “failure to act honestly, fairly and professionally in the best interests of their clients”.
Imagine that this was not the Saudis' first rodeo either, and that the size of the record fine was partly due to the fact that it had been the subject of four previous enforcement actions by the regulator. Or that after all, their official public response was a statement that included only 59 words.
Eighteen years, close to 600 million euros in repayments, compensation and legal costs and all they have to say for themselves is a paltry 59 words. Imagine that the Saudis behave this way. Or Paddy Power. Or Guinness. Or anyone.
Now imagine that they sponsor the All-Ireland Championships, as Allied Irish Banks does.
Last month, the bill came for AIB for their role in the industry-wide tracking scandal. The actual fine imposed by the central bank is 119 million euros, but there is a built-in 30% discount on the premature dissolution and so the figure that will eventually go to the Treasury is 83 million euros.
All of this means that one of GAA's main sponsors is on the hunt for the biggest fine the central bank has ever imposed on anyone. When you consider that the Irish banking sector, to put it mildly, has not been alienated from scandals and intrusions and fines over the decades, it requires little action.
In this context, it is EUR 45 million more than the previous record, which was handed over to Ulster Bank last year, also for their part in the tracking scandal. A fine of that size is not imposed for too little staining outside the lines. This was not an overzealous junior staff who let themselves be dragged along and lubricated a few tippers on the way up the steps. This was a monumental attack by AIB on its customers, one that lasted for almost two decades and for which not a single AIB employee or manager has ever been responsible.
Given all this, it is reasonable to think about why GAA continues to see them as such an attractive bedmate. Any other industry that hosted such a rain of criminals would surely have sports bodies running as fast as possible in the opposite direction at this stage. But look around and regardless of your sport, there are banks everywhere.
GAA has AIB, Bank of Ireland is linked to provincial rugby and domestic football. Ulster Bank have left the stage now but they hung on with their sponsorship of the All-Ireland League until the end. All these banks, the same institutions that bankrupted the country more than a decade ago and ravaged communities during the tracking scandal, they have all remained in their various partnerships without suggesting that their behavior could jeopardize the arrangements.
There is a double standard here, which the GAA has ended up in the middle of – albeit through laudable intentions. While other sports organizations have minor problems entering into partnerships with bookmakers and beverage companies, GAA has long decided to refrain from sponsorship that promotes alcohol or gambling. They feel a social responsibility, a protection towards their members. Skimp on it if you want but it is really kept and dutifully followed.
And yet, when it comes to the AIB, whose actions resulted in financial disaster up to and including the loss of family homes, it does not seem to be a problem. The record fine was announced on Wednesday 22 June. The following weekend, the football quarterfinals were held in Croke Park – eight counties from every corner of the island that flocked over 120,000 paying guests to GAA's headquarters. Browse through the match programs both days, you will find 10 mentions of AIB or uses of their logo – including on the front page, on all team line-up pages and a full-page ad on the inside cover. The price of doing business.
So what to do about all this? Probably nothing, if we're all very honest about it. AIB is no pariah here. We can argue that they should be, but that's another working day. This is partly because regardless of their actions, they are seen as respectable in a way that bookmakers and beverage sellers will never be. In part – and counter-intuitively – it is because people are a bit inundated with banking scandals at this stage.
But most of it is because AIB's sponsorship of GAA is a success. They have supported the club championships since the early 90's. They are one of the six title sponsors for All-Ireland. They have joined the camogie championships as well. They have made it worthwhile for everyone, not only financially but also in terms of commitment.
They have thrown themselves into making behind-the-scenes videos with the Tailteann Cup, with club players and county players in all sorts of scenarios. They have hashtags going on and campaigns on social media are pumping. You will not be able to move in the next few months of the club championships by being bombarded with #TheToughest and everything else. The Real Ireland, packaged and sold to you by a bank that has spent 18 years cheating the people who live in it.
You do not have to go to Saudi Arabia to see sports laundry in action.
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