Gerry Ryan's devastated Melanie now gets the sack
Unicef board considered publicity storm was undermining the charity
Published 24/07/2011 | 05:00
Successful charity chief executive Melanie Verwoerd has been sensationally dismissed by the board of Unicef Ireland because of her public association with tragic radio star Gerry Ryan.
It is believed that Ms Verwoerd, a former politician and South African ambassador, was told a week ago by chairman Paul Connolly that she was being relieved of her post because of the level of publicity that surrounded her association with colourful lover Gerry Ryan, who died tragically after taking cocaine.
The attractive executive was said by a very close friend to be "devastated".
"All I can say is that I have been dismissed, I am making no further comment," Ms Verwoerd told the Sunday Independent last night.
A close friend said the latest development was another body blow after the emotional trauma of Gerry Ryan's death and that she had put a huge amount of work into the organisation, both before and since his death.
Although the board of Unicef has not publicly announced Ms Verwoerd's dismissal, it is said that some directors of the children's organisation were very concerned about the level of media attention to their relationship and felt that this was overshadowing the work of the charity.
In response to questions from this newspaper, a spokesman for Unicef Ireland said the organisation "does not comment on speculation".
The board of Unicef Ireland includes chairman Paul Connolly and PJ Mara, two long-time associates of billionaire Denis O'Brien; Charlie Haughey's one-time solicitor Ivor Fitzpatrick; and Alma Carroll, wife of Penney's founder Arthur Ryan.
Other directors include Sinead Kelly, an Aer Lingus hostess who was appointed to the board in March of this year, and Bank of Ireland corporate director Tom Hayes.
The decision to dismiss Ms Verwoerd from Unicef Ireland came after an "astonishing" performance by the charity, which raised €6.9m for the New York-based organisation last year -- an increase of over 100 per cent.
This happened at a time when most Irish charities were reporting that their revenues had halved because of the recession.
Ms Verwoerd was also instrumental in extracting a separate €11m grant to Unicef from the Irish Government and a major philanthropic donation from a private individual.
The charity has a number of famous 'ambassadors', including former Bond actors Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, actors Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Stephen Rae and broadcaster Ryan Tubridy.
Ms Verwoerd recently returned from a visit to Zimbabwe with Irish rugby international Donncha O'Callaghan.
Her friends were told about her dismissal last week and several are said to be particularly upset.
"She was dismissed by email," said a friend of the former ANC politician and South African ambassador.
"At the very beginning, she told the board about her relationship with Gerry Ryan and there was nothing she could have done about the media frenzy that followed his death."
Ms Verwoerd shunned the media after Ryan died alone in his Leeson Street home after a night out with friends to celebrate a new contract with RTE. Traces of cocaine were found in his body, an inquest later revealed.
When asked by the coroner if she knew of Gerry's use of cocaine, she replied: "Definitely not. We had two unnegotiable agreements. One of them was the use of drugs.
"He knew there would be no second chances, I would be out the door. He made me a solemn promise. I'm confident that he kept that promise until the night of his death."
She gave one interview to Marian Finucane on RTE's Saturday radio show to try to shut down the publicity. She appealed to the media to leave her and her two children alone so that they could get on with their lives and she with her charity work.
However, the inquest and the publication of Gerry Ryan's €1.3m will led to further publicity, which caused increasing concern among members of the board of Unicef.
"It all started about a month ago when members of the board said stories about Gerry Ryan and Melanie kept appearing in the media and they were concerned that this was damaging the reputation of the charity," said a friend yesterday.
"She told them, 'He's dead, I can't do anything about it -- I've tried to get the media off my back, but I can't stop them'. But that didn't seem to satisfy them."
It is believed that matters came to a head in recent weeks after Ms Verwoerd was questioned about her private life at the launch of a Unicef report into children's mental health.
She answered: "I am doing okay, but its been a tough year personally" and it was these comments that made the headlines, rather than the details of the report.
It is believed that she was told that her high profile in the media was "distracting" from her work for the charity, which employs 15 people in Dublin.
The former politician and diplomat has been astonishingly successful as chief executive of Unicef Ireland, bringing in massive donations at a time when other charities are in deep trouble. She also enticed several well-known businessmen and entertainment figures to help publicise its work.
Ms Verwoerd saw Ireland, where her son and daughter have put down roots, as her home and she was recently granted Irish citizenship.
"This charity wanted someone high-profile and that's what they got. Now it seems they have changed their minds," said one associate.
Some of those who have dealt with her on projects have found that she has tried to downplay her involvement with Gerry Ryan -- while at the same time not distancing herself from the personal tragedy that had engulfed her.
"When we collaborated with Unicef on a special issue of LIFE magazine, Melanie was determined that there would be no mention of Gerry Ryan in the issue at all," says the Sunday Independent's Brendan O'Connor.
"Eventually, under duress, she included an anecdote about him, but only to make a point about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
"We ended up kind of falling out over it, but she was adamant that she would not, as she saw it, use him or her relationship with him."
In her moving and difficult interview with Marian Finucane, Ms Verwoerd explained in detail the motivation behind her decision to go public on how the couple had met and what it was like to be in a relationship with the rumbustious radio star.
"It is such a difficult decision to make and it is probably the one interview I never wanted to do in my life. There are really two reasons.
"The first and most important one is that Gerry asked me before he died. About two weeks before he died -- I don't know if he had a premonition -- he made me promise that.
"Inevitably, lies would be spoken about him and he made me promise and make sure that doesn't become fact in the public memory. It was easy to promise at the time because I thought we would have another 25 or 30 years together. I have to honour that promise.
"I had time with this extraordinary man. That is why I am coming to it now, because I would have preferred to wait a lot longer but it has got to do mainly with the pressure from the media.
"I have worked with the media almost on a daily basis. I understand the media, I understand the pressure they are under and I have huge respect for journalists and almost without exception I have had a good relationship with the media.
"I really hoped after Gerry's funeral that the pressure would ease a little but the opposite has happened in my case -- the constant ringing of my doorbell, the phone calls not stopping, even on my children's mobiles.
"The fact that I am really anxious every time I go out of the house -- who is going to doorstep me? -- is becoming really difficult for me and my children.
"I am hoping by doing this one interview, and one interview only, about Gerry and his death that the media may give us a bit of space to mourn Gerry privately."
Ms Verwoerd described how she and Gerry Ryan first met in 2004 when she was South African ambassador to Ireland and he interviewed her on his radio show.
"When Gerry first contacted me, I absolutely wasn't interested. One thing I had promised myself is that I wouldn't get involved again with someone who has a public profile.
"I just wanted a calm normal relationship. Of course, I didn't get a proper sense that you couldn't have a higher profile than Gerry Ryan in Ireland.
"Well he was very persistent and persuasive. Eventually I agreed to have a drink with him and I completely fell for him.
"I had sparkling water. I don't drink and that is one of the reasons why people on the surface think we were very different. We were both very much a public persona, but actually in our private persona Gerry and I had so many things that were similar.
"One thing was the intellectual stuff, we really really loved the intellectual debates and politics and would debate for hours and Gerry loved that he could test things on me.
"We could argue for hours, right through the night. And the following morning when he would go on air he would put my argument as his argument. It always amused me slightly.
"Intellectually, it was a great meeting of minds. But both of us had public lives since our early 20s. He understood the challenges, also we had both been married for more than 20 years and both had come through the break-up of those marriages.
"I think we both felt slightly battered by life and somewhere in all of that we found this quiet and safe space. We just were very, very happy."
However, that happiness is now completely in tatters after she was sacked by email. When contacted last night, Melanie Verwoerd said that she had "nothing to say" about the sacking.
However, the former Unicef chief is now believed to be taking advice as to whether to challenge the sacking through the courts by suing for unfair dismissal.