Ireland to get ‘world-class’ whistleblower law, Howlin says

Ireland must understand ‘internal criticism is perfectly acceptable’

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin  says whistleblowers are  usually motivated by a desire to bring wrongs into the light. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin says whistleblowers are usually motivated by a desire to bring wrongs into the light. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00


Ireland has tolerated unacceptable practices in public and business life for decades, but it will have “world-class” protections for whistleblowers by Christmas, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has told a conference in London.

Throughout history, the tag of “informer” had been “one of the dirtiest of words in the Irish vocabulary, so we have to change that culture”, Mr Howlin told the Open Government Summit in London yesterday.

Ireland must understand “internal criticism is perfectly acceptable and that people who do that are not to be shunned, or not to be ignored and certainly not to be victimised”.


Corporate culture
Improvements from the Protected Disclosures Bill 2013, published last July, would come in the public sector, “but changes in corporate culture may be somewhat harder to achieve”, he said.

The legislation specifies that employees cannot be penalised for disclosing information about offences; the failure to comply with legal obligations; miscarriages of justice; risks to health and safety; misuse of public funds; or mismanagement by a public body.

Legislation could lay down a framework, he said. “Ultimately, however, the extent to which corporate Ireland meets the highest ethical standards will be dependent not only on shareholders but also on the attitudes of all stakeholders including workers and customers.”


‘Potential for corruption’
Defending whistleblowers, the Minister said they were usually motivated by a desire to bring wrongs into the light.

“Where secrecy rules, lack of trust prevails, confidence in institutions – both public and private – is lost and the potential for corruption is magnified.”

Speaking later, he said: “It is understood that people who whistleblow normally don’t prosper. It might not be all that overt, but it can be covert. That is a cultural change and it is much more difficult.

“That is why I said that legislation in and of itself is only a framework. The cultural shift has to happen with practice, with education, with training, with a code of conduct that is respected by employers, so that at the end of the day the resort to the legislation is rare.”

In his speech, Mr Howlin said there had been “an almost implicit acceptance of practices over a long number of years which the modern observer rightly views with dismay if not horror. Yet Irish society, if not necessarily accepting all of those practices as the norm, remained silent over the years. A few voices did speak out but were muffled.”

Saying he acknowledged that the legislation was “not perfect”, he said everyone must accept the plight of a whistleblower faced with a hostile employer was “ unenviable”.

“No legislative process can pretend to provide a complete solution. . . At best, whistleblower protection legislation can provide a safety net.”