RSPBA faces difficult questions at Northern Ireland branch AGM
RSPBA executive officer Ian Embelton was confronted with difficult questions regarding the lack of transparency in the organization from concerned, even angry, members at the annual general meeting of the association’s Northern Ireland branch (RSPBANI) on November 30 at Trinity Methodist Halls in Lisburn.
During Embelton’s report on the overall situation of the world’s biggest piping and drumming association, he faced pointed questions about the costs of and the tender process for the repairs and remodelling of the RSPBA’s headquarters in Glasgow following a fire in 2017.
“We’re very pleased to say that the work’s now been completed, or 95% of it has,” Embelton said at the meeting. “The building is finished, and we’re not in debt.”
Embelton reported that the RSPBA has £112,000 in cash in its bank account. The organization, however, has a written policy of maintaining a minimum balance of £261,009 – the minimum amount it needs for annual running costs.
With the first major championship about six months away, Embelton said that the RSPBA expects to receive deposits of £500,000 over the next two years from organizations that have won the rights to hold the organization’s five major championships. Embelton also said that he anticipates that various grants and loans will be collected by April.
He said monies include a bank loan of £100,000 and some £130,000 in loans from RSPBA branches that were asked to consider helping with financial problems that resulted from the refurbishment project that has so far exceeded £1-million. The association has asked branches, administrators and judges to consider making loans and donations to cover costs needed for furniture.
It was revealed at the meeting that the architecture firm awarded the design job was Assist Design Ltd. of Edinburgh. A director at the company is the pipe-major of a Grade 3A band.
Embelton promised the membership that contract work was put out to tender and the organization received multiple bids for both the architectural and building stages, and that documents would be made available to members in a month.
“We’ve been very fortunate to build up our finances. I know there’s been a lot of discussion on this, mainly on social media – most of it inaccurate. We felt [the construction job] was very well planned. The board of directors made the decision over two years ago . . . The plans were displayed two years ago at the AGM, and there really is nothing that . . . is by surprise.”
He referenced the loans from branches and the fact that some directors and some of the officials, including some adjudicators, donated their contest allowance from the World Solo Drumming Championship to help furnish the association’s new education and training centre, and how “this was a purely voluntary act with these officials. . . . but for some reason that story has been twisted.”
“At the board of directors’ meeting on the 5th of October, the directors agreed to donate an allowance to the World Solo Drumming and the first major championship of 2020. The travel and accommodation expenses will still be reimbursed, and these donations will be used to purchase furniture and equipment for the new training rooms at the new headquarters.’ Now, I don’t know if there’s anything difficult about that; it seems straightforward. I added at the end, ‘Any other officials wishing to make a donation, please indicate this to the office in advance, or simply leave the allowance off your expenses sheet on the day.’
“Unfortunately, certain people on social media took this, and I know Pipes & Drums [sic] had a headline that said ‘RSPBA ask adjudicators to work for free.’ It’s total nonsense. It’s a prime example of how malicious people who don’t have the interest of our association at heart can take a generous, magnanimous gesture . . . and twist it to be personal and completely different.”
The headline actually read, “World Solo Drumming judges asked to work for free.” This magazine heard from several judges who corroborated reports received from other insiders.
“There are some really unsavoury characters out there, who would like us to fail,” Embelton said. “I can just tell you that that’s not going to happen. I just wanted to make clear, because gossip and malicious nonsense like that can be destructive, but there is nothing that has happened in this association that has caught anyone by surprise.”
About the organization’s financial situation he said: “We have finances in place for the major championships – over half-a-million [pounds] each year for the next two years, and we are in final stages of discussions with a number of main sponsors, especially Glasgow for the World’s about extending that for another three years. And, yes, there will be cash flow problems, but we’ve secured £100,000 . . . should we need it, with loans from the major branches of the association of £140,000 should we need it.
“I wanted to make that clear because . . . the ones who actually put that out aren’t even in the organization. And one of the members who’s quoted in [the pipes|drums article] is not even in the RSPBA anymore.”
The only quote in the article was from a current RSPBA judge who spoke on condition of anonymity. Embelton was invited to comment on the matter for the pipes|drums story, but no response was received.
In the question period that followed Embelton’s report, he was asked about the headquarters refurbishment and the “mumblings and groanings . . . emanating from Scotland.” The unidentified member suggested, “We’d be better talking about facts, because I don’t do social media. I don’t like it, so I don’t do it. But it’s one of those devils that’s here, and it’s one of those devils that can be used . . . . usefully? Sometimes, but a lot of the time, not so usefully for any organization.”
Embelton responded, “The inference that offended me on social media – and I’m not on social media, like you. I’ve never signed up for Facebook, and I don’t intend to. I find it is of benefit to people who want to view their grandchildren’s photographs . . . but I can’t see any . . . purpose it serves.”
The RSPBA maintains active Facebook and Twitter accounts, with most branches having their own Facebook pages.
“If people continue to use [social media] in that fashion, somebody’s going to lose their house . . . because the postings they took are actionable in court.” – Ian Embelton
Embelton continued, “In fact, one of your number have been suspended from the association for a year for obscene and abusive postings he put on Facebook immediately after the World Pipe Band Championships. If people continue to use it in that fashion, somebody’s going to lose their house . . . because the postings they took are actionable in court.”
The comment was interpreted by some as a veiled threat of legal action against RSPBA members who express undesirable opinions on social media.
Along with Pipe Bands Australia, the RSPBA has clamped down on individuals who have made social media posts on their personal accounts regarding pipe band matters of opinion, with suspensions and outright bans.
Most RSPBA member bands and judges maintain their own pages on Facebook. Judges routinely comment regarding the success of competing bands.
“As far as money’s concerned, we could always do with more money. Every charity and every organization in the world welcomes funding, but we’re not sitting there . . . begging. We’re encouraging people to help us if they wish to do so, and if they don’t wish to do so we’ll carry on.”
The anti-social media Northern Ireland branch member continued: “I believe both the RSPBA and our own branch must be on guard against the like of social media, because that’s what people will believe first. Not everybody’s going to be discerning enough . . . to actually sort out the difference, yet at the same time the members simply want the transparency, the clarity of what is happening at any one time. So, you’ve a lot on your plate, and that’s why we pay you so much. But you as an administrator for the number of years you’ve been in that position, and your experience, would you agree that we have to look at things like that and be careful?”
Embelton took the chief executive role with the RSPBA in 2001. He had no known previous background in piping and drumming.
Despite saying that he neither likes nor participates in social media, he provided his advise to those who do. He also suggested that RSPBA members should attend branch meetings to obtain information.
“I think you have to be very careful,” Embelton said. “If you’re reading postings on social media and going to believe it, please make sure that you respect and trust the person posting it. Don’t just accept it from people you don’t know. And if you have any questions, you have three members from this branch who attend regular meetings and are fully briefed on all the goings-on. If you don’t attend branch meetings, you don’t find out what’s going on. Don’t believe social media. Ask your branch.”
Another branch member asked about the construction planning and contracts, “What empowered the board of directors to make that monumental decision without consultation to the members of the association, being each of the bands. We were told at the last branch meeting that it was the member bands that voted for this. . . That is at odds with what Mr. Embelton has now just said, that it was actually decided over two years ago by the board of directors. So the question is, Who drove this project? Who wanted to refurbish Washington Street? Was it the bands? Or was it just the directors?”
“Washington Street was in a state of disrepair,” Embelton responded, “and there were proposals made over the last five to 10 years from various band members that they wanted . . . and a very high percentage of people wanted Washington Street refurbished. The catalyst for this was the fire. . . . The plans were then commissioned and seen at the AGM, and the AGM accepted that we would refurbish it.”
When asked by an attending member about who commissioned the refurbishment plans, Embelton said that the board of directors “asked an architect” and acknowledged that a principal with Asset Consultants was with a member pipe band.
“We asked the question at our last meeting for transparency,” the questioning member continued. “I have seen the questions on social media asking for why a tender process for such a large project not taken on board, and unfortunately it looks – and I’m not accusing – it looks as if it was ‘jobs for the boys.’ A project of that magnitude, of a million pounds, and it was just handed to an architect based around the Edinburgh area that just so happens to be a member of the branch of the chairman [John Hughes]. That does not look good for our association.”
It is worth noting that it is not unusual for pipe band associations to work with consultants and suppliers who are or are connected with members, though the size, scope and value of the RSPBA’s refurbishment project is exceptional.
Embelton responded saying that the building project went to “about five tenders that were considered by the architect, first of all, structural engineer and wanted to survey it, and then proposals were put to the board of directors, with recommendations as to which company was to be used. It’s all well documented. Our accountants were involved and our solicitors were also involved in it.”
Embelton did not specifically say whether the architect portion of the refurbishment went to tender. He has not responded to an invitation from pipes|drums to clarify whether the architect portion of the project specifically was put out to tender, and whether multiple bids were received.
The questioning member then demanded that all documents be published and made available, contending requests have been made for more than two years.
Embelton said that it would “take at least a month to pull that all together,” but said he would take the request back to the RSPBA’s board of directors at their meeting in the first week of December.
The member continued, “The same transparency that we’re asking for there – which is all we’re asking for is transparency – therefore there can be no doubt what money was spent, that can put every rumour and every malicious comment to bed, because the headquarters, directors, will post a robust to it. That is yet to happen. That is why, unfortunately, the more it’s ignored and the more people run away from it, the more it festers, and it needs sorted out for the survival.”
The member said that a vote for more transparency with RSPBANI was voted down, “and the chairman then laughed about it . . . I’ve asked for transparency of our branch’s financial and nobody wants it.”
He went on to remark that the only band secretaries can cast a vote by members, according to RSPBA rules. “There is little amount of bands being represented,” the member said, citing that many Northern Ireland bands’ secretaries were not present at the branch meeting, “so therefore it has been shot down again. On one hand, I’m asking for transparency on behalf of members, and the members who are in the room are saying, ‘No, we don’t want transparency. We don’t want to know how much our branch spent.’ Does that then equate that we don’t actually want to know how much headquarters spent? A million pounds to do up an office. Prize money remains the same. That’s why pipe bands are failing, because they can’t afford to run bands. You’ve had three, four years now where you’ve had one band representing Northern Ireland’s branch of 40-odd bands going to [the European Championships at] Inverness because it costs an absolute fortune to get there, with no help from the branch, no help from the association, but it’s all right because we’ve new practice facilities in greater Glasgow area.”
Prize money for the Grade 1 2019 World Pipe Band Champion was £1,500. There is no travel allowance provided to bands in UK competitions. The World Solo Drumming Championships offers no prize money.
“We got insurance money of 130-odd thousand,” the member continued. “You’ve spent nearly a million pounds. How much is 45 Washington Street now worth if you sell it? Would we make that money back immediately if you sold it tomorrow? Probably not.”
Embelton agreed, saying, “Probably not,” explaining that, if sold, the land would be used to create a new office block. He then contended that, “As a branch member, you run the organization,” saying that members appointed the 19 directors who make decisions on behalf of members, stressing again that accountants and solicitors vetted and audited all documents and submitted bids, and that the contract was signed by the chairman of the association, Hughes.
“I personally have no fears whatsoever that it was all perfectly clean and above board and it will withstand any investigation that is required.” – Ian Embelton
“I personally have no fears whatsoever that it was all perfectly clean and above board and it will withstand any investigation that is required,” Embelton said.
The member then asked why an investigation would be required. Embelton contended that the questioning member had suggested that an investigation should be undertaken, and the member responded, “I’m not insinuating at all; I’m only saying that I would like it to be transparent. No investigation’s necessary.”
The member also asked about a vote of no confidence in the chairman at a past RSPBA AGM, which allegedly failed by one vote, contending that the information was not made readily known to members.
Shortly after, the member’s line of questioning was then cut off, and the discussion of other business carried on.
Earlier, following a summary of how the major championships went, including a claim that the World Championships finished “just over an hour ahead of previous years.” The final result at the 2019 World’s was made at 8 pm GMT, and in 2018 the final result was announced at 8:30 pm.
Another member then spoke up to compliment RSPBA leaders for doing “a great job.” It received a smattering of applause.
Extracted comments are verbatim from a recording of the event provided unsolicited to pipes|drums.
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