Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mystery surrounds the appointment of new Irish Red Cross Chairperson

For the first time it its 73 year history the Irish Red Cross will, during the month of May, appoint its own Chairperson. Since the founding of the Irish Red Cross in 1939 the Irish Government has always appointed the Chairperson.

Following the recent approval by the Government of a new Irish Red Cross Constitution the honour of appointing the Chairperson now falls to the governing Central Council of the Society. The obligation on the Irish Red Cross to therefore carry out the selection and appointment process in an open, transparent, fair and accountable manner is obvious.

How has the Irish Red Cross faired so far then? Well an organisation steeped in a culture of secrecy, misgovernance, financial irregularities, cronyism and misuse of donor money doesn’t change its spots easily. Despite the appointment of a new Chairperson being only weeks away there has been no public vacancy announcement and no information or details provided on the Irish Red Cross website. It is not clear what, if any, application process applies and how one can put forward suitably qualified interested candidates. Such secrecy and lack of transparency doesn’t exactly shout to the world ‘we are committed to change and henceforth we will amend our ways’.

The Irish Red Cross has apparently appointed a five person insider Nominations Committee, three from the Executive Committee and two from the Central Council, to oversee the mysterious process. The three individuals appointed from the Executive Committee would best be described as ‘status quo loyalists’ so the two individuals from the Central Council will have their work cut out if they have any interest in appointing a chairperson committed to real change. Nowhere on the Irish Red Cross website is the name of these five individuals and their contact details revealed. The culture of secrecy prevails.

It remains unclear if the Nominations Committee will put forward a number of names on which Central Council members will vote at their May Central Council meeting or if they will submit one name to be crowned on the day.

Just to mention one of the ‘sweeping’ changes under the new Irish Red Cross constitution is the name change of Central Council to General Assembly. One can only imagine the dramatic impact this new name will lead to! Those familiar with the Irish Red Cross know that the rewriting of the constitution began over twelve years ago so it’s encouraging to see that twelve years work has led to such fundamental change as a new name for the Central Council.

This Blog is not a big gambling fan but if it was to put a few Euros on who the next Chairperson of the Irish Red Cross will be the money would be on the existing Fianna Fail appointed Chairman, David O’ Callaghan. His term of office expires on April 30th, six days from now and he has not publicly indicated his desire to step down. This combined with the Irish Red Cross failure to announce the vacancy and invite applications in an open, accountable and transparent manner leads the Blog to believe Mr. O’Callaghan wants to be given another term in office. If that is the case the Blog has no doubt the compliant Central Council (sorry General Assembly) will oblige and his coronation will be complete by the end of May. If that happens long serving board members can breathe a sigh of relief as Mr. O’Callaghan has gone out of his way to publicly praise and endorse those with the longest board service and who would have most to lose in the event of a new reforming chair being appointed.

Silence also surrounds the appointment of the first National Director of Units. The closing date for applications was 31st March 2012 so presumably an announcement should be imminent. Many comments on the Blog have been advocating for a ‘non-insider’ female to be appointed to break the appalling gender imbalance within the governance structures of the Society and to put a hole in the culture of cronyism endemic to the organisation.

As mentioned above the new Irish Red Cross constitution was approved by the Government last week. In fairness the new rules have a number of positives and as well as many negatives. The main positive is that despite every attempt by long serving board members to delay and minimise governance reform strenuous lobbying by a number of individuals scuppered their efforts. As a result there is now a maximum limit on the number of years any individual can serve on the Executive Committee (now called the Board of Directors, another of those sweeping changes!). This will ensure obscene amounts of service such as Tony Lawlor’s 21 years as Vice Chair will never ever be allowed happen again. This must be acknowledged as a big positive. It will hopefully protect future generations of the Irish Red Cross from the damage caused by poor governance that has been sadly inflicted on the Society over the past twenty years. No Executive Committee member going forward will be allowed serve more than two three year terms (six years) in office without having to take a mandatory three year break. This will ensure no individual ever again gets a strangle hold on the Society to the extent current long serving board members have.

It should be remembered that those responsible for putting forward governance reform proposals did everything to minimise this mandatory break. The first draft constitution put forward reluctantly recommended only a one year break. This was endorsed by the compliant and acquiescent Central Council. Following an enormous amount of lobbying which resulted in a letter to the Irish Red Cross from Minister for Justice and Defence, Alan Shatter, in May 2011, the powers that be at the Society introduced a three year ‘not really mandatory’ break where one had to step down for three years after six years service but only if someone else was nominated for the position. If no-one else went forward for the position then an individual could serve a third three year term, a fourth term and so on indefinitely. The compliant and acquiescent Central Council approved this amended version. More lobbying followed and finally the game was up for the Irish Red Cross.  The clause allowing indefinite terms of office if no-one else went forward for the position was removed. The compliant and acquiescent Central Council approved this third attempt at proper governance reform at its 10th March 2012 meeting.  As such a three year break after six years service on the Executive Committee is now MANDATORY with NO exceptions. This must be acknowledged as very positive and a direct result of sustained advocacy and lobbying.

There are a number of critical weaknesses in the new constitution. First and foremost it does not take into account cumulative service on the board to date. While the new constitution is clearly stating that serving no more than six years on the Executive Committee followed by a three year mandatory break is good practice such a philosophy will not be applied to those excessively long serving board members such as the Vice Chairman and Treasurer. This means that despite having already served 21 years as Vice Chairman the current incumbent, if he is re-appointed, will be permitted to serve for another six years before having no option but to step down from the board. The positive is this individual will, at most, in six years time be off the board for a minimum period of three years. The negative is we may have to wait six years for this to happen. If, however, the Irish Red Cross membership are sensible, prudent and genuinely committed to good governance long serving board members will not be reappointed in May and a six year wait for their departure will be unnecessary.

Another key weakness in the new constitution is the absence of any maximum length of service and/or mandatory breaks for Central Council (General Assembly) members. This means Central Council members can effectively serve for life (indefinite three year terms) in breach of accepted good governance practice. It is to be remembered that the Central Council is the highest deliberative authority of the Irish Red Cross, to which the Executive Committee reports. The failure by the Irish Red Cross leadership and the Department of Defence to insist on mandatory breaks from Central Council similar to that which now applies to the Executive Committee diminishes substantially the overall standing of the new constitution.

Despite the obvious deficiencies in the new Constitution (and only two have been referred to in this article) the mandatory three year break from the Executive Committee with no exceptions is a significant development. Its approval by the Government is a substantial defeat for those in the Irish Red Cross who fought tooth and nail to prevent it ever happening. It will in time inflict a serious blow to their power bases and henceforth they will never again hold the same sway, power, influence and control over the Society as they have done for the last twenty years. These individuals surely realise that during their enforced three year absence from the Executive Committee, whether that period commences in 2012, in 2018 or somewhere in between, that swift and decisive moves will be made to ensure their stranglehold on the organisation is finally broken. Should they return to the Executive Committee after their forced three year exile they will find a changed environment, an altered context and the influx of individuals during their absence who are prepared to challenge them and prevent their return to dominance ever again.

Much effort and many sacrifices have been made by numerous individuals to drag the Irish Red Cross kicking and screaming towards reform. Those guilty of wrongdoing have yet to be held to account but their disgraceful actions and incompetence are all now on public record and the truth has been exposed for all to see.

Without the efforts of those committed to reform there would be no three year mandatory break from the Executive Committee, the power of long serving board members would not have been substantially weakened and the suffocating hand on the throat of the Irish Red Cross would have grown tighter not looser. Much work remains to be done but it is clear the truth, when exposed and combined with determination, can and does force positive change. It can be painfully slow but over time persistence pays off and will bear fruit.

Like any good gardener will tell you the de-weeding process never ends, you must always remain vigilant and if you want your garden to bloom you must never stop.

To rid the grass of weed, to get
     The whole root,
Thick, tangled, takes a strong mind

And desire -- to make clean, make pure.
     The weed, tough
As the rock it leaps against,

Unless plucked to the last
     Live fiber
Will plunge up through dark again.

         Lucien Stryk, 1924-The Rocks of Sesshu, And Still Birds Sing, 1998