After almost nine years in the job, Horse Sport Ireland’s CEO Damian McDonald is finally leaving to take up another position, and is returning to the agriculture sector.

McDonald, who was appointed to the HSI job in late 2007, was formerly chief executive of the young farmers’ association, Macra na Feirme.

His new job, Director General of the Irish Farmers’ Association, is a role only recently created within the organisation, and follows a period of controversy over executive salary levels and the resignation of its former general secretary Pat Smith

McDonald joined Horse Sport Ireland shortly after former Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh was appointed as chairman of the new equestrian governing body, and remained after Walsh was replaced by Professor Pat Wall in 2013.

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Damian McDonald, pictured shortly after his appointment to HSI in 2008.

Horse Sport Ireland itself is now the subject of a review by the Department of Agriculture, which has appointed the economic consultants Indecon to examine its governance structures. The organisation’s performance is also being reviewed by Sport Ireland, (formerly the Irish Sports Council).

There is also unrest amongst many of Ireland’s international show jumping riders, who demanded a meeting with HSI only last Monday to review issues of management, communication and long-term planning.

Ireland has not qualified a show jumping team for the Olympics on three consecutive occasions – Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and Rio in 2018 – and much of the blame for this humiliating record is being directed at the governing body.

Though there may be a feeling amongst those taking part in the sport that a new Chief Executive will now make changes easier to effect, there is also a certain concern that some of the structures built up under McDonald’s stewardship may be difficult to dismantle, thus hindering any significant improvements in the management of the sport in the short term.

One aspect of Horse Sport Ireland’s activity that has attracted much criticism over the years is its concentration on breeding, which many feel has hindered the progress of the sport element of its responsibilities. A Deloitte report from 2012 criticised several aspects of  HSI’s management and structures, but zeroed in on this area, saying that breeding should be made “the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and allow the sports disciplines to develop further.” It also recommended a downsizing of the various large committees who meet regularly at the HSI headquarters outside Naas, and also the appointment of independent members to the HSI Board, rather than the current practice of allocating seats to representatives of the various affiliates.

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Damian McDonald addressing a meeting at the HSI offices in Naas, Co. Kildare

Horse Sport Ireland’s birth was itself controversial, as many in the industry argued that it did not follow the recommendations of the Connellan Report, a comprehensive document commissioned by the then national governing body, the Equestrian Federation of Ireland.

The Connellan Report was supplanted by a separate review commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, known as the Dowling Report, which effectively threw out many of the recommendations of the distinguished group chaired by Liam Connellan, who was head of the Confederation of Irish Industry.

Jack Burns