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Why silence isn't golden when serious questions need to be answered

When the fallout from the Adam Johnson child-sex scandal engulfed Sunderland FC this week its Co Armagh-born chief executive, Margaret Byrne, was nowhere to be seen, writes Martin Hardy

The sun shone, the Stadium of Light pitch cut a perfect green and from an executive box behind a goal, Margaret Byrne spoke about the progressive, forward club Sunderland were becoming.

Take That had played a sell-out concert at the stadium days earlier. They had beaten Newcastle and St James' Park to the punch to host major bands in the north-east of England. It was worth £1m to the club for every concert they hosted. More money for players. More progression. A club on the move.

That was 2011. Byrne, from Dromintee in Co Armagh, was just 31 and she was the chief executive of a Premier League club. She spoke about the club's ambition and how astute Martin O'Neill was in the transfer market, when the pair had been buying players together.

A 31-year-old running a football club? This was Karren Brady country.

It was an off-the-record chat with two journalists. She was bright and funny. Byrne was stepping into the spotlight.

"Be nice with her," came the request from the Sunderland Press officer.

Byrne was an emerging name in the game, moving quickly. She had started a degree in consumer studies at university in Belfast, before completing a conversion course to law in London.

She specialised in financial settlements, divorce cases and criminal law at Galbraith Branley in north London before moving to Goodman Ray. In 2007, she answered a job advert in the Sunday Times as Sunderland sought a new club secretary.

The Irish influence at Sunderland at the time was considerable. Niall Quinn was the chairman, who was overseeing a revolution inside the club. Roy Keane was the hungry new manager. It felt a club going places. She joined.

Four years later, she replaced Steve Walton as chief executive at the Stadium of Light. Byrne was then voted onto the FA Council. She joined the Premier League legal advisory board. She was high-profile.

On Thursday, nearly five years down the line, there were whispers in the north-east of TV crews trying to find her for an official comment on the paedophile scandal rocking the club.

They did not find her. Some said Byrne was abroad.

With the club embroiled in a dark scandal, about whether it, or more directly, she, had known of the 834 Whatsapp messages that were sent between Adam Johnson, an employee of Sunderland at the time, and a 15-year-old girl, Byrne was unavailable for comment.

Nobody was being nice with her now. Orlando Pownall QC, in defending Johnson in court, had said that she had been given copies of the messages in a meeting on May 4. The police on Thursday also suggested that she had.

Sunderland, in the statement that followed Johnson being found guilty of one charge of sex with a child, muddied the waters with the ambiguity of their wording.

Byrne was present during part of the meeting, but the statement then said, "some documents were received which were immediately sent to Pownall for his attention". Pownall had been with Byrne at the time.

There was already a moral opposition to the club's decision to play Johnson a further 28 times from his arrest just over a year ago.

The club suspended Johnson for two weeks, but he was then allowed to return to training with his Sunderland team-mates at the Academy of Light.

By the time he scored the opening goal against Newcastle in the Tyne-Wear derby at the Stadium of Light in October, his 15-year-old victim, a Sunderland season ticket holder, had been abused to such an extent on social media that she said in court she felt she could not attend the game for fear of being recognised.

Still, Johnson kept playing and, indeed, scored a crucial goal in what will most likely be his final ever game of professional football, at Liverpool, a goal that sparked an unexpected late fightback to earn a team fighting relegation a precious point.

It was only after the case began that the allegation was made that Sunderland had known of the messages between the player and the victim, something that was descried as "classic grooming", that they had known all along.

On Thursday, Sam Allardyce, who only took over at the Stadium of Light in October, was grilled about what he and the club knew. He did not know about the documents, he said.

A club Press officer fought desperately to stop the questions about what Sunderland had known and the apparent moral vacuum, suggested in court created to keep the club up, so that Johnson could play.

Margaret Byrne, the rising star of football boardrooms, was nowhere to be seen. Or heard.

When Sunderland appointed the Mussolini-supporting Paolo di Canio as their new manager in 2013, the disgust of their support was so great that the Durham Miners' Association were ready to take their banners from the Stadium of Light.

The-then labour MP, David Miliband, resigned as a director at the club.

Byrne sat at the back of another heated Press conference and said nothing as questions on Di Canio's political allegiance were not allowed to be answered.

Sunderland hope the controversy would blow away, which it did to a degree, until a players' rebellion called for Byrne to sack the Italian.

For this time, for the severity of the implication, for the harm heaped upon a 15-year-old victim, it seems implausible that Byrne and Sunderland can expect either Byrne, or the billionaire owner Ellis Short, to say nothing.

Their silence shames a city.

Belfast Telegraph

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