| 9.2°C Dublin

Why do we hang whistleblowers out to dry?

Ireland has a woefully poor record of protecting and rewarding whistleblowers, much to our cost.

Many of the great scandals in recent Irish history -- like the Dirt inquiry in AIB -- only came to light as a result of the actions of brave people, willing to risk their livelihoods and financial security to bring corruption, malpractice or incompetence to light.

We journalists know, appreciate and cherish the courage and gallantry of whistleblowers.

These are people who risk it all to tell the truth, to stand up to their bosses, to be honest brokers in a country where such honesty is punished, not rewarded, time and time again.

Legislation has been long promised on protecting those who raise their heads and speak out, but as of yet, there is no sign of it.

"The Government has refused to give the necessary protection to whistleblowers in the banking sector. The proposed legislation would not have protected Ireland's two noblest whistleblowers, Eugene McErlean and Tony Spollen, who both blew the whistle on AIB," said my colleague Senator Shane Ross, who has worked tirelessly to highlight their efforts.

Their efforts were crucial in revealing one of the great swindles of all time by Irish banks.

But now we have the latest case involving the troubled Irish Red Cross. In recent months, the once venerable charity has been dogged by a series of controversies and scandals.

Its head of international development, Noel Wardick, was suspended from his position after he revealed himself as the author of a blog which highlighted serious instances of poor governance and financial irregularities at the charity.

In the middle of this extraordinary affair is €162,000 of donations which lay idle in a Tipperary bank account for three years.

An inquiry by independent accountants was launched by the IRC, only to be quickly abandoned on the basis of cost and replaced with an internal probe which has been criticised in the Dail as being simply not credible.

A truly transparent and independent inquiry into the allegations and the mysterious case of the Tipperary bank account is the only way the IRC can ensure that its excellent reputation can be restored.

For bringing all this to light and asking that things change, Mr Wardick is now facing the sack on the grounds of gross miscounduct, confirmation of which is due any day now.

It's a bloody disgrace.

Mr Wardick, like Mr Spollen and Mr McErlean, should be commended for his dedication to upholding decent standards in the face of grubby cronyism. He should be protected by law and he should be recognised as one of the good guys. He told the truth, he bravely spoke out against incompetence and corruption.

But what has happened, is that large amounts of money are being used to wage war against Mr Wardick. To discredit him. Rather than listen to what he is saying or fix it, those in charge of the IRC waste thousands of euros in pursuing him.

And all the while, Defence Minister Tony Killeen refuses to intervene, despite almost €1m of taxpayers' money being handed over every year and the fact that he appoints the chairman.

If Mr Wardick is sacked, it will represent the gravest of injustices and sends a powerful message that incompetence, negligence and cronyism are acceptable and that doing the right thing will get you nowhere.

It has been eight years since legislation was first promised, but as of yet to no avail.

Fine Gael's Brian Hayes said that Mr Wardick deserves to be protected not sacked. "The case of Noel Wardick and the Irish Red Cross highlights the urgent need to protect whistleblowers. It's now over eight years since the Government first promised legislation in this area."

He added: "The fact the Fianna Fail has not produced legislation and have voted down a Private Member's Bill from the opposition clearly demonstrates that the Government doesn't want people to speak out and doesn't want to protect those public servants who want to shine a light on malpractice and waste."

And the legislation that has been promised stops well short of offering any real protection to those who speak out.

"Whistleblowing laws that are introduced which fail to cover the most important cases, mean the Minister for Justice is simply indulging in publicity stunts," Mr Ross said.

It's time Ireland came out of the dark ages -- It's time we not only protect whistleblowers, but cherish them.

Mr Wardick, like Mr Spollen and Mr McErlean before him, has genuinely done this State some service, and for that they deserve our support and our thanks.

Sunday Independent