Engagement with Chairman-Designate of Bord na gCon.

I remind members and witnesses to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off. We are meeting Mr. Frank Nyhan, chairman-designate, in order to hear how he envisages Bord na gCon progressing over the next period.

Before we begin, I wish to bring to his attention the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Nyhan to make his opening statement, which will be followed by questions from the members.

Mr. Frank Nyhan

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. I was appointed chairman of the Irish Greyhound Board on 6 September 2018. I am a solicitor by profession and I am currently the State solicitor for Cork city. I am a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and an accredited mediator. I have served as a vice chairman of the Employment Appeals Tribunal. I am a member of the panel of chairpersons of the mental health tribunals and am also a statutory arbitrator appointed pursuant to section 23 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Bovine Tuberculosis) Regulations 2015. I live in Mallow, County Cork, and am from Clonmel, County Tipperary. I have served as president of the North and East Cork Bar Association, president of the Mallow Chamber of Commerce, president of the Rotary Club in Mallow and chairman of Mallow GAA club and Mallow rugby club. I remain chairman of the management committee of the Mallow GAA complex which remains the largest GAA complex constructed outside of Dublin.

My interest in greyhounds is primarily through my father, Sean Nyhan, and also due to the fact that I come from Clonmel, which regards itself as the true home of the greyhound industry in Ireland. Ours was a traditional two greyhound family. We raced our animals at the local Clonmel track, with very occasional trips further afield when merited. At a later stage, I was a member of a syndicate which owned a number of greyhounds that raced, with very limited success, in Cork and Tralee. I have served for the past three years as a member of the Irish Greyhound Board.

It is fair to say that the greyhound industry has experienced challenging times and continues to do so, but I am satisfied that we are making progress. Greyhound racing has a long history and is part of the culture and social fabric of the entire community. It has a strong rural base, particularly associated with the farming community, and also enjoys strong support from the urban areas where the stadia are located. In 2017, the board, prompted by the committee, commissioned Jim Power Economics to undertake an assessment of the financial and economic impact of the Irish greyhound industry. This study was a follow-up to the previous assessment undertaken by the same group in April 2011. The published report demonstrates that while there has been a downturn in the overall industry since 2011, it remains a very significant and strong industry. It supports over 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, has 7,313 owners and delivers an economic impact of the order of €300 million to the national economy. This level of impact cannot be underestimated, particularly in rural areas, and the industry remains an important contributor to sustained rural development, which is a stated objective for semi-State bodies.

Members of the committee will be aware that various studies have been undertaken on our industry in recent years culminating with the committee's report in January 2016. Bord na gCon has addressed the cumulative recommendations of these reports and we have assigned the necessary resources for implementation. I had the pleasure of appearing before the committee earlier this year, with Dr. Colm Gaynor, for the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Greyhound Industry Bill, which is currently before the Seanad. It is clear that updating the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 is much needed in order to provide a modern legislative framework for the industry. The Bill will strengthen proper governance and give statutory effect to the code of practice for the governance of State bodies. It will give greater specificity and enhance the existing regulatory powers in the areas of sales, training and racing of greyhounds, with particular reference to doping. It contains provisions to enable Bord na gCon to develop a real-time traceability system, either alone or in co-operation with others, for racing greyhounds in order to identify those in possession of greyhounds and attribute accountability to them. The new Bill will also place the control committee and the appeals committee on a statutory basis and will include measures to improve enforcement of penalties.

During 2017, the board spent considerable time formulating a new strategic plan for the industry for the period from 2018 to 2022. This plan was the subject of an industry-wide consultation process and also had regard to the studies already undertaken. The plan focuses on seven key pillars of activity comprising three areas of growth: growing owners and breeders; growing tote and wagering activity; and growing attendances. These three areas are underpinned by four foundation pillars, namely, integrity and regulation, high welfare standards, organisational structures and information technology. This plan was approved by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and, since its publication in March 2018, we have begun to progress the many actions required under it. Provided we can achieve our funding targets annually, with the implementation of the initiatives set out in the strategic plan, we would be running a fair, transparent and highly-regulated sport and offering a top-class experience across all our stadia - supported by a single, committed and innovative Irish Greyhound Board team - where the greyhound will always come first.

The sale of the Harold's Cross greyhound stadium, which was finalised in May, has enabled the board to deal with long-term debt issues and, for the first time in many years, we have some funding for investment in track infrastructure and the wider industry.

This has enabled the board to deal with long-term debt issues and for the first time in many years we have some funding for investment in track infrastructure and the wider industry. The surplus proceeds from the sale amounted to approximately €6 million and these have been subject to a detailed business plan approved by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The plan provides for: a €3 million investment in Shelbourne Park to bring the facility up to the expectation of modern users and customers; lesser sums to be expended on Curraheen Park and other stadia improvements; and a possible redevelopment in Kilkenny together with €1 million for significant upgrades in information technology.

One of the key areas for attention within the strategic plan is a systematic review of the industry footprint. The board is committed to conducting a strategic review of all stadia to determine the industry footprint for the future. I am pleased to advise the committee that a tender process to appoint an independent party to undertake this review has commenced. Of necessity the review will involve extensive consultation with stakeholders and we would expect a final report by March 2019.

Communication within and outside the industry has long been identified as a challenge for Bord na gCon. The national greyhound consultative forum was established under my predecessor Phil Meaney in 2016 with the aim of engagement with representatives of the wider industry, and this forum now meets on a quarterly basis. It provides an invaluable mechanism for the board to consult with stakeholders and to make proposals for change within the industry. It also allows stakeholders to raise concerns directly with the board and the executive. A range of issues has been dealt with through this forum to date, including the greyhound grading system, welfare issues and the fixture and events calendar. The board has also put in place a communication arrangement with Oireachtas Members and briefings have taken place in November 2017 and in May of this year. It is our intention to continue this information and dialogue.

We have recognised Brexit as a key challenge for us as the United Kingdom represents the principal market for greyhound sales. There is also ongoing transportation of greyhounds to participate in competitions in the UK and UK based greyhounds to participate in competitions in Ireland. As recently as 26 September 2018 we considered this issue in detail at the national greyhound consultant forum and we were fortunate to have a presentation from an officer of the Brexit section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Following from same, we will arrange for affected sections of our industry to engage with the Department so that the final shape of any Brexit arrangement can satisfactorily meet the needs in the industry.

I have some personal priorities for the next five years. By the end of my term, I would expect that the Greyhound Racing Bill would be fully operational and that greyhound welfare would be a priority throughout the industry. I also want to have improved the cohesion among the stakeholders so that attendances at all our stadia will have increased significantly. A colleague recently reminded me of the words of Henry Ford: "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success."

In conclusion, Chairman, I wish to acknowledge the work of this committee on matters relating to the Irish greyhound industry and its ongoing support in relation to resourcing and improving same. I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend here today and I am happy to continue to work with this committee and its members in progressing and addressing the issues affecting the Irish greyhound industry. I am now happy to deal as best I can with any questions that members might have.

I thank Mr. Nyhan.

I welcome the new chairman of Bord na gCon and thank him for the presentation. I put on the record my appreciation of the work of the outgoing chairman, Phil Meaney, who steered the industry through a difficult period, and steered it very well.

I have a number of points I would like to make. Our greyhound industry is under pressure, and there is no point in denying that. Attendances are falling and dog numbers are falling. We need to get more imaginative to try to keep the industry in place and in business. I am a director of a privately owned greyhound track and I see at first hand how difficult it is for a track to break even and to stay in business.

In the previous presentation to the committee, we spoke about climate change. Dog welfare is the elephant in the room. The issue must be addressed satisfactorily if our industry is to prosper and survive. When many dog owners talk about welfare, they think it is about the sand on the track and racing surface, but welfare goes a lot further than that. It is also about the life of the greyhound after it finishes racing and the way it is going to be looked after. With regard to the courses, I am on the track side and there are many issues that need to be addressed. I appreciate the board has directed money towards dog welfare but more needs to be done. We have to get the public to realise that the dogs are being looked after extremely well and are well cared for. If our industry is to progress we have to win that battle. At the moment we are definitely not winning it. Dog welfare links into the whole issue of regulation and the enforcement of regulation. Unfortunately the industry has got a name for malpractices and that even when a malpractice is found, the board is unable to enforce penalties and fines. As we sit here, the new Greyhound Racing Bill 2018 is being discussed in Seanad Éireann. Hopefully, it will address these necessary issues. There can be no place in our industry for people who break rules or who use banned substances. It is absolutely essential we are seen as being an industry that does not tolerate any breaking of rules or regulations. It has to be enforced. Hopefully, this can be done with the new Bill. I cannot stress enough to Mr. Nyhan the importance of winning this battle with regard to the public. We have had too many headlines of dogs being found with substances in their systems, and no sanctions being enforced against the trainer. We have had this on very high profile nights in the industry and it has done us a serious amount of harm. We have to get beyond that. In his term as chairman, I would stress to Mr. Nyhan that regulations in place are enforced. It is absolutely paramount to restore public confidence that everything is above board in the industry.

With regard to the prize money that is available, we have to make prize money attractive. Prize money must be in place so when owners or syndicates have a greyhound that wins a race or two, they can break even with the training fees in a calendar year. We have to make it attractive. A percentage of that prize money has to be available for trainers also. The day of private trainers has definitely dwindled. In his opening statement the chairman said that the greyhound industry is associated with the farming community, which is correct, but with the time pressures facing farmers and with different changes in society, it is more and more the case that the availability of labour on farms is greatly reduced. The training of dogs has definitely become more of a professional operation. It is essential that this is made an economically viable profession. Giving trainers a share of increased prize money is the way to go. It is important for owners and syndicates to see they have an opportunity to at least break even if they have reasonable success on the track.

I now turn to attendances and attracting people back through the turnstiles. I would often take a walk to the Shelbourne Park track in the evening, especially during the summer months. Summer evenings at the tracks, even here in the capital, are poorly attended. We need to get people back in through the turnstiles. I know that Mr. Nyhan will be giving this issue paramount attention but we need more imagination around the bets that are available on the tote. A couple of years ago, the jackpot on a Saturday night in Shelbourne Park created great betting interest across the country on the tote. That has evaporated. We need something like that to attract punters in to invest in the Saturday night. A big pot in place would attract the punter and get the tote punter back in. The tote could be an attractive proposition for attendees at the tracks. At the moment people have not been betting on the tote at rural tracks and in Dublin. It is just not happening. The pools or bets have not been catching the public imagination and it is absolutely essential that they do so.

I am also worried about on-track bookmakers, about whom some say I have a bee in my bonnet. Their numbers have diminished significantly in the last couple of years. I would say they are down by up to 80% over a ten-year period. The proposition made in the budget that betting tax be increased from 1% to 2% is one I have raised at meetings of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. I hope we might be able to secure an exemption in the Finance Bill for on-track bookmakers. It is a betting tax on turnover and I just do not think on-track bookmakers would be able to cover it. We could see their complete extinction, even though they bring an atmosphere to race tracks, whether it be horse racing or dog racing. They bring an atmosphere that is unique and it would be a huge loss. I know that betting turnover in bookmakers has dropped significantly, but if we allow the demise of on-track bookmakers, we will live to regret it.

The chairman is coming in at a challenging time for the industry. The sale of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium generated an awful lot of debate, a period during which the previous chairman suffered a lot. It was the correct decision as it took away the debt that was hanging like a guillotine over the board. However, that opportunity will not come again. There will not be another asset like Harold's Cross greyhound stadium to sell. Therefore, we have to ensure we drive forward from here and that the funds left over from the sale will be used as wisely as possible. We need to regenerate the industry and Mr. Nyhan's term of office will be a determining factor in whether the industry survives. It is under extreme pressure and we have to attract young people back to it. The number of young people attending dog race meetings has dropped significantly. Mr. Nyhan faces a lot of challenges, but he is extremely well qualified to hold the position in which tI wish him the best of luck. I am involved in the industry which I would like to see doing well. We face a lot of challenges that we cannot ignore. I am not saying we cannot get it back to where it was, but we need imagination and to show a lot of initiative to do so. I wish Mr. Nyhan well in his tenure.

Mr. Frank Nyhan

I thank the Deputy.

I am unusual in not having a clue about dog racing. There is no track close to my area. The track in Lifford is the only one in County Donegal and I think it is in bother. This might seem like a stupid question. Mr. Nyhan talked about the crisis being at the level of the tracks, race meetings and stuff like that, but according to the annual reports for 2014 to 2017, inclusive, attendances per race meeting are actually very consistent. The total figure goes from 644,000 in 2014 to 636,000 in 2016. The figure for 2017 is a little different because of a dispute. I do not know anything about it, but the number of race meetings seems to work out at about between 1,600 and 1,700, which seems to be a huge number. Perhaps the idea should be to have fewer meetings but of better quality. It works out at about 32 meetings per week. Perhaps I am wrong and there is a reason for it.

Mr. Nyhan's term is five years. I would flippantly say if he hopes to see the greyhound racing Bill implemented in that time, he is being a bit optimistic.

Deputy Jackie Cahill took the Chair.

Mr. Frank Nyhan

The number of race meetings remains consistent, but the number of dogs running is reducing, as is the number of races each night. While the number of people attending has been static over a three-year period, it is not a sufficient number to sustain the industry. The model requires a lot more to attend because the only way we can have more money for prize money - it is what funds the industry - is if more people attend and sponsor races. We need to increase those figures in order that we can feed money back in. The idea is that a person who owns one or two greyhounds should be able to run them without costing him money, but that is probably not the position. I expect that we should be able to introduce legislation over a period of five years.

Mr. Frank Nyhan

Time will tell.

Returning to the points I made to Mr. Nyhan about regulation, is Bord na gCon happy with the greyhound racing Bill?

Mr. Frank Nyhan

We have had an input into the legislation and been before the committee to discuss it. A lot of what we asked for in terms of regulation has been included in the Bill. The provisions will strengthen our hand and that of the various committees that will ultimately adjudicate in enforcing the regulations. The Vice Chairman is absolutely correct when he says we have an unfortunate reputation, but really that is the perception, rather than being the actual problem. The rate of adverse analytical findings is 0.45% out of approximately 5,000 tests. In the last three years the rate has been 0.8%, just over 0.5% and 0.45%. It is miniscule. However, I accept fully what the Vice Chairman says.

A question was asked about our procedures. They were tested recently in an application before the High Court and, fortunately, held to be correct. We hope that will continue to be the case.

We have invested a lot of money in regulation. In 2017 I think we spent €2 million on various aspects. We will have to continue to do so. If we do not crack the problem, we will not be able to do all of the other things we need to do.

Has work on the joint laboratory with Horse Racing Ireland been advanced? Does Mr. Nyhan believe that is the way to go?

Mr. Frank Nyhan

Yes, we are in favour of the concept, if it can be done. Our chief executive and the chief executive of HRI have discussed the matter. The next step will be having some form of sub-committee to prepare a report on its feasibility. There are challenges in that regard. I am not an expert in the field, but apparently there are physiological differences between dogs and horses that will require a dual testing system. It does stand to reason that having an Irish based sports laboratory for animals would be a very good idea.

I thank Mr. Nyhan and wish him the best of luck in his appointment.

Sitting suspended at 5.50 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.