Former Unicef chief 'deeply shocked' over dismissal

Mon, Jul 25, 2011, 01:00

FORMER UNICEF Ireland executive director Melanie Verwoerd has said she was “deeply shocked” to have been sacked from the charity because of the publicity surrounding her relationship with the late broadcaster Gerry Ryan.

Ms Verwoerd confirmed the board of Unicef Ireland terminated her employment with the organisation by e-mail on Friday, July 15th, because of the media interest in her relationship with the late RTÉ presenter, who died suddenly in April last year.

She is now seeking legal advice as a result of her dismissal.

A source said the board felt the continuing media interest in her former relationship with Ryan was overshadowing the work of the charity, particularly when reporters were more interested in the fallout from his death than the causes Unicef Ireland espouses.

Ms Verwoerd gave only one major interview in relation to her former partner when she spoke at length to RTÉ radio presenter Marian Finucane in June last year.

She also issued a statement to the Press Association to mark the first anniversary of Ryan’s death, when she said it was “impossible to describe the void his death has left in my life. I will always love him. I will always miss him.”

Ms Verwoerd acknowledged the time since Ryan’s death had been a “very difficult and distressing period” for her, but it did not affect her work and Unicef Ireland was always “top of my agenda”.

“The performance of the organisation during this period speaks for itself,” she said.

She added that Unicef Ireland almost doubled its donations from €4.3 million in 2009 to €8.4 million last year, despite the recession, where many charities found themselves under pressure for fundraising. As a result, Unicef Ireland transferred almost €7 million to its parent last year.

Unicef receives €11.5 million from the Irish Government separately every year.

“The profile of the organisation for whom I have worked tirelessly has never been higher in Ireland,” she said.

She pointed out that last month, in Unicef Ireland’s annual report, chairman Paul Connolly praised her and the other staff for their “unstinting work” for the organisation in 2010.

Ms Verwoerd was appointed as the South African ambassador to Ireland in 2001 following a seven-year stint as an ANC member of parliament. She remained as the ambassador until 2005 and was appointed Unicef Ireland director in April 2007.

She first met Ryan in January 2008 and they started a relationship after the broadcaster split up from his wife, Morah, after 26 years.

Together Ms Verwoerd and Ryan became a very high-profile couple. It was she who discovered his body in his apartment in Upper Leeson Street, Donnybrook, on April 30th last year.

Since then issues such as the revelations from the inquest that Ryan had taken cocaine before his death, interest in the contents of his €1.3 million will, and the first anniversary Mass from which Ms Verwoerd was excluded have kept their relationship in the public domain.

The board of Unicef Ireland includes Mr Connolly, a businessman and chairman, and former government press secretary PJ Mara.

A spokesman for Unicef Ireland said it had “strictly no comment” at this stage about Ms Verwoerd’s dismissal.