Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Department of Defence and Senior Management: Part of the problem at the Irish Red Cross?

In recent exchanges in Dail Eireann and in virtually every response to the constant supply of Parliamentary Questions the Minister of Defence, Willie O'Dea, insists he does not want to get involved in the day to day affairs of the Irish Red Cross. The Minister fails, however, to recognise that his selection of Government nominees to the Irish Red Cross Board has consistently contributed to the woes of the organisation.

It is important, however, to state at the outset of this article that the majority of Government nominees to the Irish Red Cross Board have always acted and behaved to the highest ethical standards and whose integrity, dedication and commitment could never be questioned. Having said that, of the group of Board members who have dominated and controlled the Irish Red Cross with an iron fist the Minister is responsbile for appointing a number of them. The vast majority of the problems that have beset the Irish Red Cross for two decades can be traced back to a handful of people, at least two, if not three, of whom are appointed by the Minister for Defence. Minister O'Dea is fully aware of who these Board members are and despite many requests over many years from concerned members of the Irish Red Cross not to re-appoint these people he has always ignored such pleas. The Minister cannot absolve himself from the problems of the Irish Red Cross by saying he will not interfere in an independent organisation when in fact his very actions in Board member selection are a major contributing factor to the dysfunctional nature of the organisation. It is incumbent on the Minister to finally and urgently address this issue as his continued failure to remove these troublesome and embarrassing members from the Board is only exacerbating the deep seated problems at the Society. The Minister must also immediately appoint a new Chairperson to replace Mr. David Andrews who resigned in December 2009. The current vaccum at the top of the Irish Red Cross and the uncertainty it is creating is not helpful during such a difficult time. It is hoped the Minister will appoint a strong, experienced and committed individual who will have the character and temperment to drive through the much needed governancee reform.

The other question that has been exercising the mind of this blog for some time is where are the senior managers of the Irish Red Cross and why is it that they appear silent, fearful and incapable of demanding change and professionalism? This blog has previously commented on the question marks surrounding the current Acting Secretary General but what of the other senior managers? There are managers heading up the national department, overseas department, finance department, communications department and fundraising department. These managers appear impotent in their ability to effect positive change. Why is this? Are they simply afraid like many others within the Irish Red Cross? Or maybe they are not sufficently qualified or experienced enough to deal with complex problems such as those that afflict the organisation. Are these managers part of the problem in fact or are they suffereing in silence and fear? This blog would like to see a little more back bone, courage and leadership from these people. Questions need to be asked of and answers sought from these so called 'senior managers'.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Opposition Politicians Clash With Minister in Dail Over Irish Red Cross

On the 20th January a lengthy verbal exchange took place between the Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea and opposition politicians, Fine Gael Spokesperson on Defence, Jimmy Deenihan and Labour Party spokesperson on Defence, Brian O'Shea. The subject under discussion was the continuing governance and leadership crisis at the Irish Red Cross. Both Mr. Deenihan and Mr. O'Shea questioned the Minister on his unwillingness to intervene in the crisis, a crisis which is now bringing embarrassment on the Irish Red Cross internationally. It is a sad indictment on the Irish Red Cross when its problems are discussed on record in the national parliament of the country but unfortunately it reflects the reality and seriousness of the situation. Hard working staff and volunteers up and down the country continue to put in long hours responding to the recent floods and Haiti crises. Thankfully the trust and confidence of the Irish public in the Red Cross would appear to remain unaffected by the ongoing problems at the top of the organisation. The board and senior leadership of the Irish Red Cross have failed the staff and volunteers and their raw ambition to retain power regardless of the consequences is now becoming a national and international embarrassment.

The full text of the exchange in the Dail can be read by clicking on the link below:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Irish Red Cross Floods Appeal raises One Million Euro-So why the continued delays in disbursement to those in need?

It was announced on national radio over the weekend of 10th January that the Irish Red Cross has successfully raised €1 million for its Floods Appeal. This is a significant achievement particularly in the current economic climate. Genuine congratulations should go to Robert Astick, Head of Fundraising and his committed team in Merrion Square. Many members will be sad to hear that Robert has decided to move on from the Irish Red Cross and his absence from HQ will be sorely felt. Members throughout the country have regularly commented on his professionalism, fund raising knowledge and enthusiasm. It can only be hoped that those who make decisions for the Irish Red Cross, namely the Vice Chairman and one or two other Board members, insist on a replacement that matches Robert's calibre, skill and experience. It is nevertheless feared that Robert's departure will be seen as another opportunity to further diminish the professional staffing capacity of head quarters by recruiting a much less qualified and junior person into the position (see previous article on this blog for detailed views on how the Board is using such a strategy to retain its control and power).

Despite the obvious success of the Fundraising Department in raising over €1 million Euros for the Flood Appeal this blog understands that not a penny has been disbursed to those who suffered as a result of the flooding, nearly two months after the crisis. Nobody whom I have spoken to can adequately explain to me why this is so. One source however, a Central Council and Executive Committee member was very frank in their assessment: 'the Irish Red Cross Executive Committee is dominated by members whose only interest is First Aid training and competitions and the purchase of new ambulances. As a result we have lost sight of all other aspects of what a national Red Cross Society is supposed to do. No investment has taken place in national emergency response and sadly this has been evident for all to see during the recent floods and snow crises'. It would appear the Irish Red Cross was ill prepared to respond quickly and effectively to the Floods crises. The same applies to the snow crisis. As a result people desparately in need have continued to suffer while over €1 million Euro languishes in an Irish Red Cross bank account in Dublin and possibly in a number of local Red Cross branch bank accounts around the country. Sources indicate that senior officials in the organisation are begining to panic over these delays as more and more questions are being asked of Board members who control the disbursement. The fear is that the expenditure process will mirror the initial emergency response and be woefully insufficient and questionable. Thankfully for the Society these delays have not been reported in local or national media. Given all the damaging media coverage on the Irish Red Cross in 2009 it can only be hoped that the media have grown bored of the organisation. Reform from within is what is required and no benefit can accrue to anyone by having the affairs of the Irish Red Cross play out in the full glare of the media. Continued failure to address the deep seated problems of the Society, however, will inevitably lead to the problems spilling over into the public domain.

This blog has also been informed that despite the urgent need to disburse flood funds in time for Christmas the head quarters shut down for the Christmas holidays and all staff departed for their break on the 23rd/24th December and did not return until 4th January. The question has to be asked why those staff responsible for the floods response were not asked to return to work on the 27th December. The same would apply to the Acting Secretary General who missed a vital opportunity to demonstrate that things would change under his stewardship.

It would seem few lessons were learned from the floods response as a similar trend has emerged with the Irish Red Cross response to the snow. Every night on the RTE and TV3 news organisations responding to the situation are covered and interviewed. Well known and highly respected organisations such as St. Vincent de Paul, Age Action, the Civil Defence, Simon and even the ISPCA are clearly in action up and down the country. The absence of the Irish Red Cross on these news bulletins is striking and questions must be asked why this is so. The reality is it reflects the organisation's minimal presence and overall general absence on the ground.

This blog intends to raise serious questions about the ability and competence of the Irish Red Cross' senior managers and its Board to respond to major national emergencies as well as steer the organisation successfully into the new decade. It does not intend to denigrate in any way the many selfless, dedicated and altruistic members who have worked tirelessly night and day throughout the floods and snow crises assisting those most in need. It is precisely for these members that this blog exists. These members have been disgracefully served by the organisation's leadership and governance for two decades. It is for these members that personnel change at the top of the Irish Red Cross is long overdue.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Undeclared Irish Red Cross Tsunami Bank Account: those responsible need to explain their actions

On 26th December 2004 a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia which caused a tsunami that led to the death of nearly a quarter of a million people. The Irish Red Cross immediately launched an appeal and an unprecedented response from the Irish public followed. Over €30 million was raised. As reported in the November edition of the Village Magazine not all of this money was declared and handed over to the Irish Red Cross head office in Dublin, as should have happened.

The Village Magazine reported that '...several local Irish Red Cross branches have established bank accounts that they do not declare to head office-to avoid having to forward the money to 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 Executive Committee 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....'.

A number of questions need to be answered by Mr. Lawlor concerning this matter and they should be documented and put on record in order for the Central Council of the organisation to deliberate on them and decide on an appropriate course of action to prevent such a situation ever arising again. Suggested questions for Mr. Lawlor and others are:

1. Why was the €150,000 collected from the general public for the Asian Tsunami kept in an undeclared Tipperary bank acount for nearly four years? Mr. Lawlor is the main signatory to this account. Why did Mr. Lawlor not transfer this money to the Irish Red Cross in Dublin and only do so following the discovery of the account four years after the money was collected.

2. Mr. Lawlor only brought the bank account to the attention of the then Secretary General, Mr. John Roycroft, after he became aware of an internal investigation launched by Mr. Roycroft and Mr. Declan O' Sullivan, then Acting Head of Finance, now Acting Secretary General. This investigation was launched following rumours circulating internally about numerous undeclared bank accounts involving a number of branches.

3. If the above bank account had not been discovered following the investigation how long would the €150,000 have remained undeclared and what did Mr. Lawlor/Tipperay Branch intend to do with the money? How many other members of the Tipperary Branch were aware of this undeclared account?

4. What actions were taken by the then Chairman, David Andrews, the then Secretary General, John Roycroft and the then Acting Head of Finance, Declan O' Sullivan once the discovery was made?

5. Why exactly was the matter not formally brought before the Executive Committee and then to the Central Council of the Irish Red Cross for consideration and action? Most Board members only became aware of the matter after reading it in the Village magazine article. Who took the decision to keep the matter quiet and not pursue it any further?

6. Now that the matter has been documented and written about in a national publication will the Executive Committee of the Irish Red Cross investigate the matter and report to the Central Council? Will the recently appointed Acting Secretary General, Mr. O' Sullivan, have any role in such an investigation given his role in the matter to date?

7. Did other senior managers know about this matter and if so why did they remain silent?

8. Is the practise of not declaring branch bank accounts and not transfering money collected locally to the head office of the Irish Red Cross widespread? What procedures are being put in place to eliminate such practises?

Since the revelations first appeared in the Village Magazine in November 2009 both the Chairman, David Andrews and the Secretary General, John Roycroft, have tendered their resignations and both have now left the organisation. Declan O' Sullivan was appointed by the Executive Committee as Acting Secretary General in December 2009 for a period of eighteen months. Insiders say in reality Mr. O' Sullivan was appointed by Mr. Tony Lawlor with the Executive Committee rubber stamping the decision.

It would appear there is a very concerted effort to have the Tipperary tsunami bank account issue go away without those responsible being held to account for their actions. The reluctance to properly address it and recent insinuations in the Phoenix magazine and Village magazine as well as an article earlier in the year in the Sunday Independent lead many to believe the Tipperay tsunami bank account is only the tip of the iceberg.

Appointment of Irish Red Cross Acting Secretary General raises more questions than it answers

The appointment of an Acting Secretary General, following the resignations of the Irish Red Cross Chairman, David Andrews and the Secretary General, John Roycroft, in November 2009, lacked, as with so many aspects of Irish Red Cross governannce, any degree of transparency, openness or debate. The position became vacant after the sudden but in reality expected resignation of John Roycroft. In line with standard good practise it would have been expected that such a senior post would be advertised openly. It would also have been wise to hire a specialist management recruitment firm to assist the organisation recruit a suitably qualified and experienced candidate. Unfortunately though the Irish Red Cross has a long standing aversion to good practice. Instead a rushed decision was taken to appointment Declan O' Sullivan as Acting Secretary General for eighteeen months 'in order to ensure continuity'. Mr. O' Sullivan has provided services at the Irish Red Cross as a part time business/finance consultant for the past two years and was tasked with assisting the then Secretary General reorganise the Finance Department. His original recruitment, as with his appoitment to Acting Secretary General, was sudden and unexpected. At the time there was no recruitment process, no advertisement of vacancy and a complete lack of transparency. O'Sullivan was basically parachuted into the organisation. Over the period of his consultancy at the Irish Red Cross it is reported Mr. O' Sullivan has benefited very handsomely by way of fees charged, something which has been a constant source of disquiet amongst certain Board members, senior volunteers as well as staff.

Not much is known about Mr. O' Sullivan, his background or his connections. It has never been clear if he was originally appointed through relationships with individual Irish Red Cross board members or a former connection with John Roycroft. It is said that Mr. O' Sullivan continues to run his business consultancy with a number of different clients as well as operating the family business which consists of two O'Brien sandwich stores in Dublin's city centre. Questions have already been raised, albeit only murmerings and whisperings at this early stage, about possible conflicts of interest between these business interests and his eighteen month role as Acting Secretary General. As for the requisite experience to take over the running of the Irish Red Cross for eighteen months it is not immediately obvious to this Blog that Mr. O' Sullivan possesses it but perhaps over time this will become more apparent. It is also of note that Mr. O' Sullivan was at the helm of the Irish Red Cross Finance Department during the period the organisation ran up a deficit in 2009 of over €400,000. Mr. O' Sullivan was during this time chief adviser to the Secretary General. The organisation failed to react until it was much too late and the Irish Red Cross plunged into a financial and managerial crisis. While John Roycroft resigned to return to his long held position at the Department of Justice Mr. O' Sullivan was promoted to the top post.

Why someone with Mr. O' Sullivan's credentials and ongoing business interests would be appointed to the organisation's top position is something that is exercising the minds of those within the Irish Red Cross. Many people believe a deal has been struck between Mr. O' Sullivan and the person who in reality runs and controls the Irish Red Cross, its Vice Chairman, Tony Lawlor. Rumours doing the rounds have indicated Mr. O' Sullivan has been put in place to protect Tony Lawlor from the ever strengthening forces aligned against him. In particular it is alleged Mr. O' Sullivan's primary job is to substantially weaken the professional staffing capacity of the Irish Red Cross head office, a place perceived by Mr. Lawlor as a hotbed of dissent and resistance to his twenty year rule. Already a number of key staff, some of whom strongly advocated for internal governance reform, have been made redundant and sources close to Tony Lawlor have indicated one or two senior managers who remain are now firmly in the sights of Mr. O' Sullivan. A number of Board members spoken to, however, were of the view that any further targetting of staff would trigger an explosive situation that could in fact back fire dramatically on Mr. Lawlor and Mr. O' Sullivan. These more moderate Board members indicated a preference for a period of calm, rebuilding and reform. They also expressed a desire to appoint a long term permanent and suitably qualified Secretary General and stated that the process of recruitment would begin in the second half of 2010.

Whether a deal between Mr. Lawlor and Mr. O' Sullivan has been struck or not what can be said with 100% certainty is that Mr. O' Sullivan would not have been installed if he posed even the remotest threat to Tony Lawlor. At the very least Mr. O' Sullivan will be compliant and do as instructed by the organisation's powerful and domineering Board members. And therein lies the problem.