Red Cross whistleblower ‘disappointed’ at treatment after years of service

Darren Ryan says there were legal threats from the charity to ‘shut me up’

 Darren Ryan: I think you’d question a humanitarian organisation doing this to a volunteer, someone who is just raising legitimate questions.”   Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Darren Ryan: I think you’d question a humanitarian organisation doing this to a volunteer, someone who is just raising legitimate questions.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Darren Ryan joined the Irish Red Cross as a youth volunteer when he was 10-years-old, and had been an active member for 26 years until recently.

From Cashel, Co Tipperary, Mr Ryan is known locally by many as “Darren from the Red Cross”, and chaired the organisation’s safeguarding committee.

In 2012, he was selected as a government appointee to the organisation’s general assembly, which includes regional representatives and senior volunteers. From there he was elected by the assembly to the charity’s board – a role he held until May last year.

On April 25th last year he sent an email to Pat Carey, board chairman and former Fianna Fáil minister, seeking a breakdown of the current balance in each restricted fund account.

Restricted funds include donations given to an appeal such as a disaster relief effort, certain types of grant funding, or funds bequeathed for a specific purpose.

At a board meeting on May 19th, Mr Ryan asked “if the management had used restricted funding for day-to-day expenditure”, to which head of finance Rory O’Sullivan said it had. The board directed all restricted funding be moved from the current bank account into a deposit account, according to confidential meeting minutes.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Ryan said he resigned several days later as he “was not standing over what the board had been informed”.

He said the practice of temporarily relying on restricted funding for general costs was a breach of people’s trust who “donate and give money in good faith”.

The charity is currently running fundraising appeals for humanitarian crises in Yemen, Indonesia and Syria.

Cash flow

In a statement to The Irish Times, a spokeswoman for the Irish Red Cross said “funds in current accounts fluctuate depending on cash flow”, and no restricted funding had been misused.

She said the charity’s restricted funds “were at all times more than covered” by the total consolidated finances of the organisation.

This means any restricted funding in the current account spent on general costs was effectively later replenished or covered by financial reserves elsewhere.

In late July last, Mr Ryan gave a local radio interview to TippFm, where he criticised the financial management of the charity. He did not reveal the controversy over the restricted funds then out of a sense of “loyalty”, he said.

Several days later he received a legal letter from Mullany Walsh and Maxwells Solicitors, acting for the Irish Red Cross. The letter, seen by The Irish Times, said Mr Ryan had “flagrantly divulged confidential information” relating to the charity.

The letter threatened Mr Ryan with legal action unless he gave a written undertaking “to desist from any further public comment on the subject of the Irish Red Cross” and the charity’s finances.

If he failed to do so the organisation’s solicitors threatened a court injunction would be taken against Mr Ryan to effectively seek a gagging order against him. The charity would also seek to recover the legal costs of the action, the letter said.

Best friends

The legal letter “was to shut me up and to stop me talking”, Mr Ryan said. “This was an organisation that I gave so much to, and a group of people [who] I would have regarded some as friends, and best friends had suddenly rounded on me for trying to raise issues.”

The “extremely stressful” threat of legal action still hangs over him, and had led him to take time off work and seek medical advice from his GP. In recent weeks he decided to leave the organisation entirely over how he was treated.

“I’m disappointed at the way I was treated after all the years of service. I think you’d question a humanitarian organisation doing this to a volunteer, someone who is just raising legitimate questions.”

Now turned whistleblower, he has contacted the Charities Regulator and members of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee over his concerns. The Charities Regulator has been examining the issue, according to a source at the watchdog.

Amid financial difficulties at the organisation, Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe recently decided to increase the Irish Red Cross annual Department of Defence grant from €869,000 to €965,000 over the next three years.