Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rambling, shambolic Irish Red Cross stumbles on

Despite admitting to being in what was termed 'uncharted waters', on the groundsthat the Irish Red Cross Society does not fall under its direct remit, the Public Accounts Committee of Dáil Éreann was treated to a mind-numbing account this week of its unfinalised response to dealing with areas of governance, financial control and the management of its headquarters. This session followed a prior session with the Committee last October when the Vote of the Department of Defence was being examined.
It beggars belief that the State is continuing to provide close to €1 million in annual funding to the Irish Red Cross Society. This wretched organisation has been in existence for over 70 years and its primary function is to support the military and tend to prisoners-of-war, but it has never engaged in either function.

Instead, it is a generic charity that had no strategic relationship whatsoever to the nation that could not be adequately and more competently catered for by other charities and Civil Defence.

The sponsor of its State funding is the Department of Defence. The former Secretary-General of this Department from 1995 to 2003, David O’Callaghan told the Public Accounts Committee meeting on 19 January that for nearly ten years he 'had been racking his brain as to how many times the Red Cross appeared on his radar of top-ten issues' and 'could remember no time when we had difficulties with it’.

That is despite the fact that in December 1999 there was major public concern about the conduct of this Society. The Minister of Defence at the time, Michael Smith, told the Dáil that a new secretary-general had been recruited by the Red Cross earlier in 1999 and that ‘one of his first tasks … was a strategic review of the operation of the Society, encompassing the views of all organs of the Society to ‘ensure the strengthening and development of the Society' and that the review will be completed by mid-2000.

Twelve years later and O’Callaghan, as Chairman of the Red Cross, tells the Public Accounts Committee that the Red Cross ‘did not keep pace with standards of best practice in respect of governance and oversight’, but that ‘the Society has recognised that weakness and responded to it in a substantial and convincing manner’.

Their response includes an overhaul of the Constitution which would preclude members of the Executive Committee from serving more than two consecutive three-year terms. However, this will not mean that the current Vice Chairman of the Society, who was one of two cheque signatories of one of 49 undisclosed bank accounts, can continue in the role of Vice Chairman for a further six years. Putin could not devise a more self-serving response to governance.

The existence of the missing bank accounts was exposed in August 2008, but it took until November 2009 before the matter reached the agenda of the 12-member Executive Committee and the member representing the Department of Finance became aware of it, despite it meeting meets each month, except August. The Society's Head of Finance had attemtped to bury the matter as an 'administrative error' until the Fourth Estate made the public aware of the latest of shenanigans which trace their origin as far back as April 1991.

O’Callaghan’s successor as Secretary-General of the Department of Defence since 2004, Michael Howard was asked by the Public Accounts Committee if he had any recollection of a Government appointee to the Executive Committee of the Red Cross resigning in 2009 citing loose financial controls, impropriety or undisclosed bank accounts, but Howard said ‘it does not spring to mind’

It was also disclosed to the Public Accounts Committee that the Red Cross has a portfolio of 17 properties but the accounts it presents that incorporate the State subsidy only include Head Office property and income.

It was confirmed to the Committee that €136,000 was spent on legal fees in 2010 by the Red Cross prosecuting Google so as to identify a blogger who blew the whistle on the undisclosed bank account which contained public voluntary donations amouting to €160,000 and on 'how t manage information that was appearing on a blog'. The cover of the Head of Finance who was apparently trying to keep the undisclosed bank accounts that the Vice Chairman of the Red Cross was a signatory to was blown apart. The €140,000 spent on legal fees was from money collected from members of the public or recevied from the State.

During these controversies the Irish Red Cross retained an acting secretary-general on a consulting basis for a fee of €160,000 per annum, prior to acting on a consulting basis as Head of Finance. Professional fees charged to the Red Cross in 2010 were €211,000 and in 2009 were €288,000 while the Society ran a deficit of €12,000 and €64,000 in these years.

O’Callaghan in his opening contribution to the Public Accounts Committee defined his Society as ‘an independent charitable organisation’ and when Smith spoke in the Dáil in 1999 he stated that a fundament principle of Red Cross societies is that they enjoy freedom from political involvement worldwide. If the Government stopped the State subvention, removed the patronage of the President and its nominees to the Central Council the Red Cross would be free of political oversight and the resources of the Oireachtas could be deployed more prioductively.

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