Despite the recent floods in Pakistan the Irish Red Cross (IRC) has been relatively quiet in comparison to other Irish charities who have made numerous public appeals for donations.
I only heard an IRC radio ad for its Pakistan appeal for the first time yesterday.
One reason behind the IRC's quietness is its suspension of Noel Wardick, head of its International Department, who is now the subject of an internal disciplinary investigation.
Wardick is a well known and respected aid worker. In January of this year he made a presentation to the Oireachtas committee on Foreign Affairs. Along with representatives from Concern and Haven, Wardick briefed the committee on the problems that aid agencies were facing in Haiti following that earthquake.
At the time of this presentation the IRC's staff were coming to terms with the
resignations of its chairman and its secretary general - namely David Andrews and John Roycroft. Andrews was replaced on a temporary basis by Tony Lawlor, a long time volunteer board member.
Someone with inside information on the IRC had by this time set up an anonymous blog to call for drastic reforms of the charity. The blog obviously irritated and upset many in the IRC including Lawlor and Declan O'Sullivan, the temporary secretary general. Others like Jenny Bulbulia, a board member who resigned in protest at a lack of financial accountability in the IRC last year, has maintained the blog has only raised valid issues.
In July the charity instigated High Court proceedings against Google and UPC in an effort to find out who the blogger was and to stop him/her undermining the charity. This legal action has garnered quite a bit of media attention.
What wasn't clear from the court reports was how UPC came to be involved.
It's emerged that as well as targetting the blog the IRC's senior management became aware of an anonymous email that was sent to many of its council members. Coming from a Hotmail account this email alerted IRC council members that there was a blog calling for the reform of the charity that was worth checking out.
Employing an IT expert, it was easy for the IRC to establish that the author of this anonymous Hotmail account had used an IP address registered with UPC. The IRC asked both Google Ireland and UPC to give up the details of the anonymous blog and the email's author but to no avail, until last month's High Court hearing.
UPC did not object to the IRC seeking discovery of the registered owner of the IP address it had tracked as sending the anonymous Hotmail email. Judge Brian McGovern granted this discovery order and by the end of that week the charity was provided with the name of the UPC user registered at that account.
The details passed on by UPC were those of Noel Wardick. I'm reliably informed that the internet provider did not even warn Wardick before providing his details to the Red Cross. Days after receiving this information Wardick was suspended. An IRC disciplinary hearing in to his alleged misbehaviour is scheduled for next week.
This case shows there is little protection for online anonymity in Ireland. In this case the judge granted the discovery order after hearing the Irish Red Cross side of things but the UPC user was never given an opportunity to present an opposing point of view. Maybe the judge would have granted the order after hearing a counter argument anyway but the precedent here needs to be considered by anyone thinking of whistle-blowing through an anonymous email in Ireland.
(I am told that if the UPC customer had used Gmail instead of Hotmail their IP address wouldn't have been visible. Also internet cafes avoid the possibility that your Internet Service Provider might dob you in it.)
Meanwhile, the IRC is pursuing its action against Google, to try and find out who is the author of the blog. The judge could not grant a discovery order against Google last month because the IRC had mistakenly taken the case against Google Ireland, which has nothing to do with running Blogspot. Google has said it takes its user's privacy very seriously which may mean it won't go the same road as UPC.
If you want to read more on the problems in the Irish Red Cross and the legal action I've written several stories about this in The Sunday Times (subscription required).