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Red Cross: governance and morale problems remain after resignations

David Andrews resigned as Chairman of the Irish Red Cross Society (IRCS) following Village’s October article calling for him to step aside in view of issues of corporate governance and propriety including the mysteriously-delayed payment of funds raised for the Asian tsunami, under his watch. At a meeting on 28 November of the central council David Andrews referred to “wretched scribes”.

The Secretary General, under disproportionate pressure over a yet-to-be-announced deficit of 400,000 to 700,000 Euro, resigned too. The resignations were treated in the press as part of a pre-arranged process but in fact the Chairman had recently been re-appointed; and the tenure of both the Chairman and Secretary General had a significant time to run. Neither would have resigned had a crisis not arisen. In an apparently unrelated move, Judge Rory McCabe resigned. Since our last edition, the organisation has decided to make four out of 20 staff working on the domestic side – including the critically important head of its highly-regarded community services – compulsorily redundant. Other staff may suffer pay cuts and disimprovements in working conditions, though Unions are resisting them, with some success. Meanwhile, the controlling executive committee members led by Tony Lawlor and Des Kavanagh remain in place.

In our October article we drew attention to the Sisyphean reform process whereby – just before a report recommending rotation of the executive committee is published – the Secretary General moves on; and the process has to be re-instigated. A report on reform was produced in November for a meeting of the central council. The council itself would become a “General Assembly” and crucially its membership could only serve two successive three-year terms before being required to retire for a year. Sources told Village the danger with this is that it was a mandate for calcified existing members of the central council to sit out another six years on the new General Assembly. This would be unhealthy.

A climate of fear and of distrust between staff and the Executive Committee prevails, partly because of the mystery surrounding the resignations of a number of Secretaries General; and partly because in the past, where details of poor governance have been leaked to the media, key staff have been combatively interrogated about it. T

he IRCS benefits from extraordinary public goodwill. Over €600,000 has already been raised for flood response with expectations of another €400,000.

In the Dail on 8 December Brian O’Shea TD asked Willie O’Dea, the Minister for Defence, if he had satisfied himself that the IRCS had in place specific plans and structures to expeditiously and economically deploy the large sums of money being collected to deal with the recent floods. The Minister said it did.

Nevertheless, despite denials by the Minister and by the IRCS itself – for example on TV3’s afternoon programme at the beginning of December – where a specific pledge was given that funds would be disbursed within 48 hours, specific plans were not in place ten days later (three weeks after the first floods) – a long time in disaster relief. In the case of previous floods in Ireland the IRCS simply administered a government-funded scheme.

In the case of the recent floods, however, the IRCS has solicited funds for itself for redistribution. In Mid-December the Irish Red Cross started accepting applications from people in need of financial assistance. It published ads saying applicants would not be means-tested but that an assessment process would be carried out to determine beneficiaries and amounts. It said payments from the fund will be considered independently of any compensation or assistance people might get. This would seem on the face of it to undermine the basis of needs-based relief. It augurs badly for the process.

The central issue is that key members of the executive committee are more interested in first aid and in purchasing ambulances than in domestic and overseas relief efforts. Ambulances have cost up to €1m annually in recent years – €400,000 in the last year – and have often been subsidised, sometimes even insisted upon, by central government including by its Galway-based Minister, Eamon O’ Cuív. Ambulances had for some time before its recent liquidation been bought without the benefit of any proper competitive tendering process from Tom Hogan Motors in Galway. Mr Hogan is a friend of Des Kavanagh, former IRCS Treasurer, though there is no reason to think that the friendship did anything other than work to the advantage of the IRCS.

The Irish Red Cross, worthy as it is and despite so many excellent volunteers on the ground, unrivalled public goodwill and the beginnings of institutional reform, has a long way to travel to fulfil the mandate and the reputational premium it enjoys in Ireland.

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