Why do we treat whistleblowers so horribly?

Caveat: A new book exposes rough treatment of whistleblowers in Irish financial services

 

Throughout his career as an elected politician, Pat Rabbitte’s greatest flaw was that he always seemed terribly pleased at how he had turned out.

The former Labour leader did indeed perform admirably as a minister and he was a pragmatic reformer, especially around the communications industry. But his former Labour colleague Kathleen Lynch hit the bullseye when she once scolded him for acting like “the smartest boy in the class”.

Almost exactly 20 years on from his first attempt to introduce legal protections for whistleblowers, however, Rabbitte would be perfectly justified in feeling smug about his efforts. People often say vision is lacking in Irish politics, but Rabbitte’s doomed Whistleblowers Protection Bill, first introduced in March of 1999, was genuinely visionary.

Why did nobody listen to him, and what was the ultimate cost of our political system and our society’s tin ear? We may never know.

But were his proposals to protect whistleblowers accepted back in 1999, our republic might have avoided some of the most grievous wounds that were inflicted on us all a decade later by our recalcitrant banking sector.

Don’t buy the notion that what befell our State was inevitable. People within our financial institutions knew of the stupid risks being taken during the frothiest Tiger years.

Under pressure

If they had had the protections envisaged in Rabbitte’s Bill, which was eventually kicked to touch by Bertie Ahern under pressure from blinkered interests such as the employers group Ibec, perhaps more would have come forward. It mightn’t have stopped the crisis, but it could have bought time.

Eventually, in 2014, long after the horse had already bolted, the stable door was locked with the passing of the Protected Disclosures Act. Whistleblowers in this State who speak out against wrongdoing now have a wide range of sturdy protections against reprisals from their employers.

Now they must only worry about reprisals from the rest of us. Whistleblowers are often revered as heroes in the press, but once the media pack moves on, the uncomfortable truth is that their lives are often left in pieces, they are sometimes shunned and even despised. It must be utterly soul-destroying for them.

Just ask people such as Jonathan Sugarman, who exposed liquidity risks at the Irish branch of Unicredit and later complained that it had ruined his career. Or loans supervisor Olivia Greene, who stood up to Michael Fingleton at Irish Nationwide Building Society (INBS), and was bullied so badly by many of her erstwhile colleagues that she frequently ended up in tears.

That is on us as a society. It always will be, and I know of no remedy for that deficiency in human behaviour. No Bill, no Act can change the Irish republican mindset, with its inherent suspicion of the motives of informers.

Rabbitte recognised this 20 years ago. On the second reading of his Bill in June 1999, he noted in the Dáil: “Deciding whether or not to expose a suspected fraud or wrongdoing at work is difficult, and brings to light a slate of seemingly contradictory values.

“We don’t like cynical troublemakers and naysayers . . . We also have contempt for busybodies, squealers and tattletales.”

Two decades and one long-overdue set of legislative reforms later, the legal position has changed but society hasn’t really.

Later this month, academic Kate Kenny, a business professor at NUI Galway, will publish Whistleblowing; Towards a New Theory, a study of society’s treatment of whistleblowers in the financial industry in Ireland and across the globe.

Interviewees

Sugarman and Greene are among the many interviewees, while the case of former AIB whistleblower Eugene McErlean, who exposed overcharging, is also considered.

You will want to fling Kenny’s book across the room. Not for how it is written; it is both quietly authoritative yet still reasonably accessible. But out of anger. Greene’s interviews with Kenny are particularly distressing to read.

After helping to expose Fingleton’s oversight of the lax lending culture at INBS, Greene’s standing among her peers was eviscerated. She talks of having doors literally slammed in her face.

“Life became impossible,” said Greene. The bullying of her was both insidiously nitpicking, and overt, such as her claim that at meetings her papers could be literally swiped on to the floor for her to pick up.

“Nobody would help me,” she told Kenny. The last we read of Greene in the Irish media, around 2015, indicates that her family home was under threat of repossession on foot of legal action against her husband.

Later this month, the European Parliament will debate proposals for a new continent-wide directive giving protection for whistleblowers. It won’t make much difference here, as we have robust laws in place since 2014.

It is now almost impossible to fire genuine Irish whistleblowers, no matter the industry. See how former Independent News and Media (INM) chief executive Robert Pitt was able to remain in situ for so long after making a protected disclosure at the company, until he chose to leave.

INM’s finance chief Ryan Preston chose to leave in January, more than two years after the shrill blast of his whistle. The law has been fixed here, albeit years too late. Fixing attitudes is another matter.

Kenny suggests the root of the problem is that we stereotype whistleblowers as heroic lone actors, instead of as one of us, pursuing our interests through an inherently social act even though they may be hurt and afraid. She says society should “take responsibility for these people”.

She also laments that people mistreat – or tolerate the mistreatment by others – of whistleblowers because their exposure of wrongdoing reminds us that we are all embedded in the system. Of how much we tolerate wrongdoing here.

This has always been the Irish way, and it probably always will be.

Footnote

The Citywest convention centre on the outskirts of Dublin was the venue this week for some full-on heavy Meitheal at the flagship industry sales event run by the State tourism authority, Fáilte Ireland.

A meitheal is an old Irish gathering where all the neighbours rally round to bring in the crops. The tourism authorities may as well have called their event Geandáil Ghasta, however, for this was effectively speed-dating on a grand scale for the tourism industry.

Every 10 minutes, a buzzer went off in the Citywest main hall, and the hordes of buyers and foreign travel agents would move tables to meet yet another Irish tourism company, fluttering its eyelashes and hoping to get into the buyer’s brochures.

No word yet on how many deals were consummated at the event but there was plenty of flirting in evidence on Tuesday, with 600 Irish hotels, restaurants and attractions on the pull.

Fáilte Ireland extended the annual event this year to include, for the first time, business tourism such as incentive travel (staff reward junkets) and conference and meetings business.

As well as buyers from the usual source markets such as the UK, Europe and the US, there were also travel agents present servicing more elusive markets such as India.

One London-based tourism buyer, Bhakti Parmar, who works for corporate travel firm Europe Inbound, specialises in bringing the staff of Indian corporates to the region on incentive trips.

Ireland used to be broadly off the agenda, but recently, she said, there has been an upsurge in interest from Indian clients.

“It’s all because of the Bollywood movie Ek Tha Tiger,” she said. The 2012 espionage film features Bollywood star Katrina Kaifeng, and includes a cult musical scene filmed in Trinity College Dublin.

“Indian visitors don’t really want to see the Book of Kells. They want to see where the scene was filmed,” Parmar said.

Translated from Hindi, “Ek Tha Tiger” means “There was a Tiger”. Yes, there really was a Tiger. We know all about it here in Ireland. We loved it while it lasted (from the mid-1990s until around 2007). But the hangover was absolutely terrible.

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