Thursday 19 April 2018

A soft-hearted tyrant who is first to front line when disaster strikes

Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

JOHN O'Shea is an enigma. A man with boundless compassion, he has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives by ensuring aid gets to the poorest of the poor in disaster zones around the world.

But he is also bolshie and always ready to berate heads of state for not doing enough, and would readily admit that diplomacy is not his strong suit.

Those who have worked alongside the 68-year-old say he is a kaleidoscope of features -- a soft-hearted tyrant who will tell you exactly what he is thinking with no sugar-coating.

Whatever his personality traits, there is no escaping the fact that he is one of the most successful charity leaders Ireland has ever produced. Over the last 35 years GOAL has spent almost three-quarters of a billion euro on humanitarian projects in 50 countries around the world.

One person who has worked with him in Africa, and more recently in Haiti, put it simply: "John O'Shea is GOAL."

The outspoken charity boss has steadily grown the organisation he founded so that now it is one of the "big three" Irish overseas aid agencies alongside Concern and Trocaire.

However, no other agency has such a high-profile head -- as GOAL, the man and the organisation are one and the same.

As a fledgling charity back in the late 1970s, such a steady hand at the tiller was just what was needed. However, in recent years it is Mr O'Shea's iron grip on the organisation that has drawn criticism and there have been a number of high-profile departures at board level.

Insiders talk of fractious board meetings which, at times, descended into chaos with insults flying across the table.

Former board chairman Ken Fogarty submitted his resignation last November following what he described as a "planned, shocking, insulting, threatening and grossly offensive" verbal outburst by Mr O'Shea.

Earlier this year it emerged that Mr O'Shea had some unspecified health concerns and that a "plan of succession" was being worked out. However, this appears to have been abandoned following yesterday's dramatic High Court injunction.

Those who have worked with Mr O'Shea down through the years describe a highly motivated man driven by compassion -- but one who could also be difficult to work with. He engenders strong emotions -- not all of them positive, commented one industry insider.

"With all the tragic humanitarian disasters in Africa in recent times, he was the one very much to the forefront.

"He was the first to the front line and the first to campaign. It's because of his huge compassion. It takes a very special person to deal with that," said one figure who worked with Mr O'Shea during the 1990s and 2000s.

However, he admitted that Mr O'Shea has a stubborn streak and can be dogged in his approach to issues.

"He's not a very easy guy to deal with. When things are going well, it's fantastic to work with him. My relationship with him was quite good, but there were a lot of pretty fraught times there."

He argued that Mr O'Shea's position -- that aid money should not be given directly to corrupt foreign governments -- failed to appreciate the nuances of this complex issue. This steadfast opposition ran the danger of weakening the strength of Ireland and potentially the public's support for overseas aid, he added.

"He was the kind of guy who, at times, would criticise people to you. I don't like that, criticising others. That's just a personality trait he has."

He said there is "always another side to John" and he pointed out that a lot of people have left the charity in recent years.

"These are issues that you hear about, but you don't want to diminish the work he's done. There are so many dimensions to his personality. But his heart is in the right place and always has been," he added.

Another person who travelled with Mr O'Shea to disaster zones overseas described him as "hyper" in the field with boundless energy.

"John O'Shea is GOAL. I found him a great character. He's a go, go, go kind of guy. He was always very hands-on, doing food runs and that kind of thing," he added.

Mr O'Shea was a respected sports journalist with the 'Evening Press' in 1977 when he became frustrated with the limitations of charity work in Ireland so set up his own.

In its first year GOAL raised IR£10,000, which was spent on a feeding programme for slum dwellers in Calcutta, India.

In the next few years it rapidly expanded its area of operations setting up projects as far afield as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Philippines.

In 1992 Mr O'Shea, a fanatical sportsman, left journalism to concentrate full-time on the charity.

GOAL now a lengthy list of sporting patrons including tennis giants such as John McEnroe, Pat Cash and Mats Wilander as well as home-grown talent including as Brian O'Driscoll, Sonia O'Sullivan, Paul McGrath and Niall Quinn.

The charity has thrived on these celebrity associations, which guarantee column inches and boost its profile.

It now remains to be seen how a vicious boardroom battle will play with the public. Mr O'Shea's views have endeared him to donors, but will they still be so keen to dip their hands in their pockets when the focus is on men in suits and not the world's starving?

Irish Independent

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