Ireland to get first whistleblower ‘helpline’

THE country’s first whistleblower helpline is to be unveiled later this year.

The helpline, which is backed by more than €70,000 in EU funding and AIB whistleblower Eugene McErlean, is being set up by the Irish chapter of anti-corruption organisation Transparency International.

John Devitt, head of TI (Ireland), said: ‘The helpline will be a first-stop shop for people who want to blow the whistle.

‘We would like to offer them advice to help them think through the various implications of their actions. One of the goals of this initiative is to encourage more of a culture of confidential reporting.’

Mr McErlean – who was group internal auditor for AIB between 1997 and 2002 and exposed over-charging at the bank – said: ‘This is badly needed. It’s just a shame the service wasn’t available before the financial crisis.

‘This service will offer people the kind of advice and support I wish I had when I was reporting concerns to the Financial Regulator.’

A team of lawyers will be available from December to offer help and advice to anyone who wants to blow the whistle on a public or private organisation.

TI (Ireland) has already called on the Government to introduce a single law protecting whistleblowers in both the public and private sector.

Better protection for whistleblowers has also been highlighted by the State’s own ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission.

A recent report slated the Government’s approach to whistleblower protection.

SIPOC attacked ‘the piecemeal approach to introducing protection for whistleblowers may have created confusion’.

And it also questioned ‘whether there is a real commitment’ to encouraging people to expose wrongdoing.

SIPOC secretary David Waddell said last night: ‘The whistleblowers helpline sounds like a very positive thing to do.

‘We have referred in very positive terms in our latest annual report to TI’s study on whistleblower protection in Ireland. We do need comprehensive protection in Ireland.

‘We cannot comment specifically on the helpline as such because we have not officially considered it. But this sort of thing sounds like a very positive development.

‘It would be difficult for the Standards in Public Office Commission to run a whistleblowers’ helpline. It could affect the perception of our impartiality to be effectively soliciting work.

‘But it is definitely a good thing for a non government organisation like TI to be doing.’

A TI (Ireland) report found that while safeguards had been included in individual pieces of legislation, people across the public and private sectors can still face legal and disciplinary action for honestly reporting concerns to their employers or the authorities.

‘There is no legal safeguard for employees in the banking sector, while the only State agencies that provides blanket guarantees to whistleblowers is FÁS and Nama,’ Mr Devitt said.

A move for whistleblower protection is backed by the director for Public Prosecutions, the governor of the Central Bank, the director of Corporate Enforcement and the Ombudsman. Such protection has been available to people in Britain and the North since 1998.

Devitt said the helpline would not serve to encourage anybody to break the law by sharing information they are not legally entitled to. Devitt added: ‘We have been contacted in the past by people who have wanted to blow the whistle.

‘This would usually happen after we published a survey. We’d get people wanting advice and we just wanted to formalise the service.’

Famous Irish whistleblowers include Anthony Spollen. In 1998, the internal auditor of AIB stated that the bank had 53,000 ‘bogus non-resident accounts’ containing more than IR£600million.

The revelation led to an investigation by the Comptroller & Auditor General that in turn led to the DIRT inquiry.

This exposed the fact that all of the country’s major banks had helped facilitate the existence of thousands of bogus non-resident accounts.

A whistleblower also led to the end of Dr Michael Neary’s reign of terror at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

He was exposed in 1998, suspended by the Irish Medical Council and struck off in 2003.

During a 25-year period, he removed the wombs of at least 188 women – even though most medics could expect to remove no more than five during their entire lifetime.

The person who blew the whistle on Neary featured subsequently in the acclaimed RTÉ docu-drama Whistleblower.

Neary was also the subject of a report by Judge Maureen Harding-Clarke, who revealed how patients files were removed from the hospital and her own offices broken into.

Have you got a whistle to blow and want the story to appear in the Irish press? Contact whistleblowersireland.com 

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