Shoddy governance, low staff morale and a rash of inexplicable resignations at the Red Cross mean it’s time for a change.
by Michael Smith
The venerable irish Red Cross (IRC) is controlled by four or five people who serve on what is called the Executive Committee (EC) – a governance structure comprising only volunteers. The professionally-paid staff, including the Secretary General, who is essentially an administrative officer for the EC, have little real autonomy. As a result, sources have told Village, the IRC, like many other NGOs, is controlled by people who are not full time professionals and this is reflected in many aspects of the organisation’s operations.
Remarkably however, there is no maximum term of office for those who serve on the EC, so members can in effect serve for life. Furthermore, 14 members of the IRC central council to which the EC reports are appointed by the Minister for Defence. Currently, the members who control the IRC have served between 12 and 20 years each without a break, on the EC. Sources told Village that their ongoing presence and control have seriously prejudiced the professionalisation, growth, and development of the organisation. A significant outstanding question is why the government knowingly appointed respected Fianna Fáil grandee, former Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews, to a fourth consecutive 3-year term as Chairman in April this year, bringing his total tenure to 12 years in 2012, something which flies in the face of good governance. The Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea, says that “the general view, except for one or two people, is that he has been a very good chairman”. But it does seem that the reappointments owe something to simple political patronage for an eminent member of the well-got Andrews family. A Chairman serving for 12 years cannot legitimately oversee a governance reform process where the biggest issue may be getting long-serving members and, in particular, officers, to step aside. This last imperative was directly acknowledged in a report commissioned by the IRC from Tom Finlay, a consultant. Non-rotation is also contrary to best practice recommendations of the International Federation of the Red Cross of which the Irish branch is a component.
The EC members who control the organisation are predominantly interested in one aspect of IRC work, namely ambulances and first aid, to the detriment of activities characteristic of the IRC in other jurisdictions. The Vice-Chairman, Tony Lawlor, and Des Kavanagh, former Treasurer for 15 years (still an EC member), are seen, Village was told, as conservatives. They have continually been very “hands-on” in the day-to-day management and decision-making, up to and including staff hiring, staff firing and in particular, the selection of major suppliers. According to Brian O’Shea, TD, speaking in the Dáil, five Secretaries General in a row have been dismissed, although the reasons given have tended to relate to ‘family’, ‘better opportunities’ etc. and the IRC strongly denies they were pushed. All of these Secretaries General have, in their own way, eventually challenged the key EC members and looked to reform governance in the run up to their acrimonious departures. In the case of the last resignation in May 2007, a letter from eighteen staff, which has been seen by Village, describes the manner of the departure as “shocking, despicable and an utter disgrace”. Typically, according to sources in the IRC, the EC endorses the reform up to the point where a plan is to be put in place and then pressure mounts to pull punches, including over the issue of the lengthy tenure of EC members themselves. Then there is vigorous opposition to term limits on EC membership. Next, the Secretary General moves on and a new process begins. The public always loses interest once the Sisyphean reform process gets underway again. Currently, we are 15 months into a reform process and a report is due in November.
The current Secretary General, John Roycroft, is said to be a capable and intelligent, if cautious, career civil servant on a three-year loan from the Department of Justice. Staff are eagerly, if sceptically, awaiting his report. Media reports in recent months; letters to the Minister of Defence, Willie O’ Dea, from Jennifer Bulbulia, who resigned in despair accusing the board of “white-washing” the minutes of meetings where criticisms were raised; and numerous parliamentary questions raised by Labour TD, Brian O’Shea; have forced both the IRC and the Minister to assert on public record that a report will be subject to discussion between the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Defence; and the IRC Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Mr O’Shea was particularly concerned at allegations that chairman, David Andrews’ “reappointment was not greeted internally with any great enthusiasm”. He noted that, “the Minister also appoints 14 members to the council of the society… these people and the chairman are political appointees to an independent organisation”. There has been surprisingly little media attention to the running of this well-respected organisation. Staff morale has been poor for much of the last twenty years. As long ago as 1999, nine of the staff came together on RTÉ News to call on the Government to set up an investigation into the running of the charity. And as recently as 2007, eighteen members of staff outlined “outstanding” concerns including “bullying, harassment, intimidation of staff by certain Executive members…which has its roots within certain quarters of the EC…[and] has now become a very real health and safety issue for employees” and “the overall culture and governance/management”.
At least four expensive consultants were employed to investigate some of these issues. One employee told Village that there is a culture of fear, with no-one in the central council – to which the EC reports twice yearly – prepared to ask hard questions. Currently IRC staff are on pay freezes and some face redundancy while huge sums of money continue to be spent on perhaps unnecessary new ambulances and other vehicles. Outside of key EC members, there is widespread concern that such expenditure is ill-directed. In the last three years, the organisation has lost many of its senior staff, including a Secretary General, public relations officer, youth director, fund-raiser and clerical officer. In October of 2008 the sacking of the financial controller led to calls for his reinstatement from the majority of the staff. A case is now being taken against the charity for unfair dismissal. An unfortunate misreporting of the financial situation of the IRC in the Sunday Independent allowed the Secretary General to avoid accounting for real governance delinquency in the organisation, detailed in a report in that newspaper, earlier this year. Several local IRC branches have established bank accounts that they do not declare to head office – to avoid having to forward the money to the head office. The Vice-Chairman of the IRC, Mr Tony Lawlor, and his Tipperary branch, kept one such bank account in Tipperary for nearly four years with €150,000 in it. This money was collected for the Asian tsunami in early 2005 from the general public, but was never declared to head office and was only submitted to Dublin in late 2008, following its discovery by head office. The Vice-Chairman was never asked to explain publicly how so much money could remain in an undeclared bank account for nearly four years, and why it was not sent to the overseas department of the organisation for use in its tsunami work. The Chairman, David Andrews, and the Secretary General did not ensure the matter became public. Indeed the EC and central council have never been informed about this matter. A source told Village that some head office staff were furious. Nothing has happened and as far as the Chairman, Secretary General and Head of Finance are concerned, the matter is closed. Village neither asserts nor believes that any selfish motivation underlies the actions of the parties concerned.
It is clear the IRC is not as efficacious as it could be if it were more progressively managed. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that in 2007, the IRC provided first aid and humanitarian assistance in 23 countries around the world that were engaged in wars or struck by natural disasters. Volunteer numbers in the IRC have doubled in the past five years from 3,000 to 6,000. The task of the organisation is noble and most of its workers are irreproachable.
The government is fully aware of all the issues within IRC as they have a permanent civil servant from the department of defence on the EC. There should be no excuses. Yet according to the Minister, answering Dáil questions in June, “No communication I have received from that person has indicated to me that there are problems”.
Nevertheless the weight of opinion, particularly from employees who have no obvious vested interests in the matter is that it seems to be time for Mr Andrews – a man with a record of unimpeachable public service, but whose ubiquitous instinct in the face of delinquency seems to be to commission reports that are rarely published, and take little or no action – to move on. It is also clear that the incipient Charities Regulation Bill should address issues of governance, across the charitable sector.