Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Priority Questions

Irish Red Cross Society.

3:00 pm

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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Question 72: To ask the Minister for Defence if he has received the copy of the internal governance reform review of the Irish Red Cross Society; the action he proposes to take arising from the recommendations in this review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2294/10]

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Question 73: To ask the Minister for Defence the remedial steps he intends to take to deal with the urgent staffing and funding issues in the Irish Red Cross Society following the resignation of its chief executive; and if he will make a statement on the matter [2297/10]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 72 and 73 together.

The Irish Red Cross Society is an autonomous body established by the Irish Red Cross Society Order 1939 pursuant to the Red Cross Act 1938 and is an independent, self-governing charitable institution. By resolution passed by its council of delegates in November 2007, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC, urged all national societies, as requested by action 3 of the strategy for the movement, to examine and update their statutes, that is, the rules of the national societies, and related legal texts by 2010 in accordance with the "Guidance for National Society Statutes" and relevant international conference resolutions. This task is being undertaken by many Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world.

In February 2008 the executive committee of the Irish Red Cross Society decided to establish a temporary working group on governance. This group, in the course of its deliberations, also sought advice from the IFRC. The chairman of the temporary working group made a presentation of its findings at the most recent meeting of the central council of the Irish Red Cross Society held at the end of November 2009. The central council, which is the plenary body of the national society, agreed in principle to the changes proposed subject to interdepartmental and inter-agency consultations.

The Department of Foreign Affairs which engages on an ongoing basis with the various components of the International Red Cross Movement and the Irish Red Cross Society in its overseas aid work will be invited to participate in these discussions. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been and is supportive of the review process which was undertaken by the Irish Red Cross Society. I am assured that the formal report of the working group will be delivered to my Department in the next few days. The report will be discussed with relevant Departments and agencies and then brought before Government to give effect to any changes in legislation deemed necessary.

The Irish Red Cross Society is partly funded by a grant-in-aid from the Vote of the Department of Defence and I bring before Government such matters as are required by statute to be dealt with by Government. I have no responsibility for the day-to-day running of the organisation. However, as we are all aware, many organisations are currently faced with difficult financial constraints and it is incumbent on all of them to manage their affairs to minimise the effects of the recession. As is the case in many organisations, the society must take whatever steps it deems necessary to ensure its financial viability. The grant-in-aid to be provided by my Department for 2010 will be in the sum of €951,000 which is unchanged from the amount provided for in 2009.

I am aware that the former Secretary General who was on secondment from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has now returned to that Department. I acknowledge with thanks his role in pursuing the issue of governance. The position of Secretary General is being filled in an acting capacity pending the recruitment of a full-time Secretary General.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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It is extraordinary that a report approved in principle by the central committee of the Irish Red Cross Society on 28 November 2009 has still not been submitted to the Department. There are urgent reasons for the changes that are necessary. In the event that the review does not address certain areas which the Minister, on the basis of advice and his own analysis, considers to be necessary, will he add to the recommendations made in the report?

Will legislation be required to implement the recommendations of the review? Will the Minister give an undertaking to address the matter expeditiously? Press coverage of the Irish Red Cross Society is not of the type we would like to see surrounding this important national organisation which has done much good nationally and internationally.

We cannot afford to waste time. When the Minister receives the report he should deal with it expeditiously. I ask him to give an undertaking that he will do so. While Deputies will be aware of speculation concerning the contents of the report, we do not know precisely what is in it. If the Minister decides the report does not go far enough, will he be disposed to go further? It appears that governance issues in the Irish Red Cross Society must be addressed effectively and clearly to strengthen the image of the organisation against the background of the current flow of negative press coverage.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I concur with the Deputy that the bad press is extremely regrettable. I am in a difficult position as Minister because, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the Government is obliged by law to ensure the independence of the Red Cross. Although the Government provides the Irish Red Cross Society with a grant-in-aid of almost €1 million per annum and supplies a building owned by the Office of Public Works free of charge, I am, nevertheless, precluded from becoming involved in the internal day-to-day running of the organisation. Under the 1938 Act, this function is to be exercised by the central council and executive committee of the Irish Red Cross Society.

Notwithstanding the adverse publicity which has surrounded the Irish Red Cross Society for some time, I did not initiate the board's recommendations because I am not involved in the day-to-day running of the society. The recommendations were prompted by a suggestion made by the international body in 2007 that Red Cross organisations in different countries should examine their governance.

While I do not know the reason the report has not been formally submitted to me, I am aware of 90% of its contents, having received an account of what it is in the document. In my opinion, legislation will be required to implement the terms of the report. That is not, however, a statement of fact.

I assure Deputy O'Shea that the issue of legislation will not cause undue delay. A delay may arise from inter-agency consultation as checks are made to determine precisely what legislative changes are needed. I will do my best to expedite the process. I agree with the Deputy on that matter.

On the Deputy's question as to whether I will make further recommendations and add to the report, with the best will in the world, I am not legally entitled to do so. In light of the provisions of the relevant legislation and the requirement on the Government to maintain the independence of the Irish Red Cross Society under the Geneva Convention, it appears that it is a matter for those who have been elected to run the Red Cross to make the changes themselves. However, if I can do anything, within the law, to assist the Irish Red Cross Society in putting an end to recent bad publicity and establishing a better governance structure, I will be pleased to do so.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister has been rather passive in this matter. Given that the Department is providing almost €1 million to the Irish Red Cross Society, surely the Minister has some responsibility to ensure the society is run properly. If the Minister is in a position to introduce legislation, he must surely have an input in the organisation.

Does the Minister agree that it is extraordinary that both the chairman and chief executive of the Irish Red Cross Society have resigned? I understand this is not the first time a chief executive of the organisation has resigned. This indicates there must be something wrong in the governance of the organisation. The Minister stated that the report, about which he knows a great deal, was drafted in November but has not yet been published officially. Surely that smacks of irresponsibility in another way and a lack of accountability and transparency. There is a problem in the Red Cross in Ireland. Otherwise, a distinguished former Member of this House would not step down and a former executive of the Irish Government, who was highly respected and who we all know, would not have stepped down. The Minister says he can do nothing about this but I do not accept it when he provides almost €1 million of Government funding. At this stage, can the Minister authorise a senior ranking official in his Department to draw up a report for him? The proposed legislation will require some involvement by his Department. Can the Minister authorise that simple investigation into why this happened? Our reputation abroad has been somewhat tarnished by the debacle in the Red Cross. I know this from feedback I received.

Recently the Red Cross collected money for flood relief. It has not yet been distributed. Does the Minister have an indication of how much was collected or is that not his responsibility? When will it be disbursed?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Regarding the final question, it is not my responsibility. The Red Cross is statutorily independent but I will find out for Deputy Deenihan how much it collected and when it will be distributed. I wish to correct the record of the House. Deputy Deenihan quoted me as saying I can do absolutely nothing. Anyone who has been in the House for the past two or three minutes knows that is not what I said.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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That is what the Minister said at the beginning.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I said I cannot get involved in the internal running of the Red Cross. It is not Irish law that prohibits me but a commitment-----

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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That is exactly what the Minister said and what I repeated.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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That does not mean I cannot do anything. That does not mean I cannot introduce legislation to allow necessary changes in governance. That is different to doing nothing.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Can the Minister carry out his own investigation?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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My Department has a member on the executive council who regularly reports to the Department. I have a fair idea of the situation without commissioning separate investigations. The board appointed a committee to carry out an investigation and has made recommendations. My job is to make legislative changes to enable the board to make those changes. It is not rocket science. Surely Deputy Deenihan can understand this.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Then the Minister has a role.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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As regards getting involved in investigations and making changes, under the Geneva Convention Ireland is committed to maintaining an independent Red Cross. An independent Red Cross means an autonomous organisation that runs its own show, whose executive council deals with governance matters and matters that have come out in the media in recent times. That is the law and that is what we signed up to as a nation. With the best will in the world, even if I provided €951 million rather than €951,000, I could do not do anything about that.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Will Minister have a role in the proposed new legislation?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Radical proposals have been made to change the governance structures of the Red Cross, which are the subject of much controversy as referred to by Deputy O'Shea. My role is to examine the recommendations, see which ones require legislative change and provide and pass the appropriate legislation in the House.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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I agree with the Minister that the organisation should be independent. There is some question as to whether the Minister should appoint the chairman or the members. Can the Minister clarify that matter for me? There has been speculation in the press. Is there a recommendation that the Minister will no longer appoint the chair?

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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I understand that the president appoints the chair, not the Minister. Should that responsibility be removed from the President?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I do not agree with any responsibility being taken from the President.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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To clarify, the Minister nominates and the President appoints.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I do not want to get into specific recommendations. Much has been made of the chairman's resignation. Some time ago, the chairman told me he wanted to wait until the report recommending reform of the Red Cross had gone through the system and that he would then offer up his position. That is precisely what happened. The Secretary General wanted to return to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We are now in the process of recruiting a new Secretary General. There is no great mystery.