Ciarnan Helferty

The chair of Amnesty International UK has resigned after Scrapbook exposed a string of mental health jokes made on Twitter. Ciarnan Helferty was roundly condemned for the off-colour remarks (in full here) about schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, most of which were made while he was in the high-profile role for one of the world’s most respected rights organisations.

Helferty’s resignation was broken to “leading activists” in a letter from Amnesty UK vice-chair Sarah O’Grady, who said:

“Ciarnan’s comments are incongruent with the policy and aims of Amnesty International.”

“In resigning, Ciarnan has demonstrated personal integrity and responsibility. His actions also emphasise that remarks of this nature are not appropriate for someone leading an organisation at the forefront of the human rights debate.”

Here’s a sample of his work:

Ciarnan Helferty schizophrenia jokes

You can read the resignation announcement below.

Dear friends

I am writing to let you know that Ciarnan Helferty has today resigned as Chair and Board member of AIUK Section and as a Trustee of AIUK Charitable Trust.

Following criticism of Tweets which he had made, which included jokes about mental health, Ciarnan immediately apologised and referred himself for investigation under the Board Code of Conduct. Cris Burson-Thomas, our Treasurer, and I are responsible for overseeing this process. I understand Ciarnan’s reasons for resigning and respect them. There are also wider lessons to be learnt for the Board including the introduction of mandatory training on equality and diversity and the AI Social Media Policy.

Ciarnan’s comments are incongruent with the policy and aims of Amnesty International.

In resigning, Ciarnan has demonstrated personal integrity and responsibility. His actions also emphasise that remarks of this nature are not appropriate for someone leading an organisation at the forefront of the human rights debate.

Ciarnan has made a truly outstanding contribution to AIUK as a Board member for the past 5 years and as Chair of the Board since May 2011. He has been involved with Amnesty for many years. He was previously Chair of the Student Action Network and has represented AIUK at 2 International Council Meetings. The Board of AIUK and I wish to thank him for his inspirational and committed leadership and his many, many hours of voluntary work for Amnesty.  Ciarnan has demonstrated an immense commitment to human rights and to the Amnesty movement, showing courage and compassion in equal measure. I hope he will continue to play an active part in our human rights work and that we will see him again at future Amnesty events.

As Vice-Chair of the Board I will now lead the Board until its next meeting on the 21st September at which point the Board will elect a new Chair. The term of the new Chair will be until May 2014 when the Board will elect a new chair in line with its normal practice. AIUK’s Board Chairs and Vice-Chairs are elected on an annual basis.   Already a member of the delegation to the 2013 International Council Meeting (ICM), I shall also now take over the leadership of the delegation, having been a Board member since 2010.

The ICM starts on August 17th and runs until the 22nd August. It will be my first ICM, but I am pleased to have the support of experienced ICM veterans, Kate Allen and Tom Hedley, as well as the expert support of Cris Burson-Thomas and Kerry Moscogiuri to help progress our own resolutions and interest in the financial discussions and decisions that will take place. Ciarnan will not now attend the ICM as originally planned. Hannah Perry, Board member and Chair of the Active Members Sub-Committee, has agreed to join the delegation and will bring expertise in youth and student activism, as well as communications to the team.

I shall continue and build on our work led by Ciarnan in improving communications with you, AIUK’s leading activists. As such I will write to you immediately after the ICM to brief you on any key decisions taken, and again after our September Board meeting to inform you of the key decisions made at the meeting, including the election of the new Chair.

Best Wishes

Sarah O’Grady

Vice-Chair, AIUK

  1. So Oxfam lose a good member of the team because some jobsworth thinks them being offended should concern the rest of us?

    What the fuck is wrong with the world? And why are you guys encouraging this?

    I remember years ago, the shit Iain Dale got for reporting someone to their boss after finding out he’d bunked off work to attend a protest. How is that that was travesty but this is OK?

  2. How can any of you be annoyed that someone who was clearly not the right person to be the chair of a charity has stepped down? Scrapbook were right to expose him

  3. *slow handclap*

    Bravo and well played, because obviously it is not enough to simply be a part of the professionally offended crowd, you must be seen to ACT upon your rage. So as a result a dedicated charity worker who spent his time campaigning for those afflicted by political injustice and judicial cruelty has now been shown the error of his ways and will sit at home contemplating his navel again. You must be so proud of how righteous you feel.

    Please go away and re-evaluate your lives you bunch of anally-retentive politically correct cockwombles. You are the reason we live in a society where governments think the correct response to anything is to regulate, block and control. All because you cannot ignore a joke that you personally don’t agree with.


  4. Pathetic gutter-journalism, and a fantastic leader has to step down. Seriously, does this make you proud to do what you do?

  5. Wonderfulforhisage says:

    Surely the test should have been were the jokes funny. Passed with flying colours say me – or should that be I?

    (We’ll get our coat).

  6. Hang on, this was voluntary role? So he did this in his free time in addition to having a life and a job of some description. Well done PS, you have outdone yourself this time, really brought down a right bastard. What was it he did again: assault? theft? fraud? oh wait, he told a couple of off colour jokes? You are an absolute shower.

  7. @John: You’re only qualified to comment here if you’ve actually read the piece properly. It’s Amnesty International, not Oxfam

    @Pete: What you call “gutter journalism”, we call reporting the truth. Incidentally, Ciarnan may be a fine fellow, but it is a *fact* that a significant number of Amnesty staff did not think he was a “great leader” owing to his handling of the recent reorganisation.

    Cut it any way you like, these comments are not appropriate for the chairman of any rights-based organisation. We did not force him to resign, he was likely given marching orders by the Amnesty UK board.

    This thread is in danger of turning into a re-hash of arguments from when this story broke:

    See also the comments from schizophrenia sufferers here:

  8. The comments seem to miss the point that this gentleman as a CEO has to stand for something and by his deeds & statements, set a standard for those his role leads. Given his day job it strikes me he lost sight of that committment & recognised it when challenged. Responsibilities are often a lonely burden but they are there for good reason.

  9. Lawrence –

    I think it’s fair comment to suggest that PS specialises in gutter hackery. The problem for you is that most people don’t seem to agree he should resign, and prob wouldn’t have if you and your ‘journalists’ (aka hacks) had stuck to reporting actual news.

    You might also want to read the letter you published, where does it even imply he was pushed? Even in his dignified resignation you choose to be an asshole and try to smear him. Poor show.

  10. David-

    1. He wasn’t the CEO. He was the Chair, a NED position, voluntary in nature. Not paid, not based in Amnesty’s HQ.

    2. What’s this about his deeds? It’s his off colour tweets that were the supposed problem.

    3. If you have information that speaks to his commitment – or lack there of – please share. If not, maybe it would be best to have the decency not to jump on the man when he’s down.

    Seriously- he left the stage quietly and we ramp it up. Shame all round.

  11. Dan… How right you are. Everyone turn their attention to the top right hand side of this page. Oh what that?? ‘Nutter’ in the headline. Well PS, we’re waiting for your blog about yourself and for you to refer yourself for investigation and then resign. But wait a second, you’re a grandstanding bunch of hypocrites; so don’t expect half the integrity of the the Amnesty Guy.

  12. @Brianzz:

    The problem for you is that most people don’t seem to agree he should resign

    I didn’t realise that you ran a polling company. Nevertheless, it looks as though a significant portion of the Amnesty International board/senior management thought it best that he should not continue as chair, either simply because of the comments or because of the damage that a full investigation — which would doubtless censure Helferty — would do the organisation.

    When someone refers themselves to a standards process and then quits before it reports back, this is often because the subject of the investigation was given to believe that the final outcome would be very damaging/fatal to them in their role. I venture that this was likely in Helferty’s and you would be frankly naive to discount this possibility.

    People can be as insulting as they care to be in this thread. We reported THE FACTS. What Amnesty and Ciarnan Helferty did after this was up to them.

  13. Complete the following sentence to win a MYSTERY PRIZE:

    “It’s okay for someone to make repeated jokes about mental illness during their chairmanship of Amnesty International because _________________________________”

  14. History will judge us by the legacy we leave behind. Ciarnan Helferty, still a young man, has made a massive contribution to the cause of human rights in the UK and abroad. He has given up much of his private time to volunteering for Amnesty International. He hasn’t benefitted financially by that work — not a single penny. He’s been courageous in leadership of Amnesty UK during one of its most difficult periods. And history may record, in a tiny footnote, that he once made a couple of off-colour jokes that were utterly devoid of malice.

    What will be Laurence Durnan’s legacy? Polluting the political atmosphere with a muckraking gossip blog that singularly failed to advance an important political idea or philosophical ideal. I hope you’re proud of yourself, Mr Durnan. You are manifestly a one-man Woodward and Bernstein.

  15. It’s okay for someone to make repeated jokes about mental illness during their chairmanship of Amnesty International because the jokes were innocuous and entirely without malice — unlike your reaction.

    Helferty has worked hard in support of vulnerable people throughout the world. You, on the other hand, are just a pompous, self-important ninny who just wrecks things. Well done.

  16. @Laurance

    “It’s okay for someone to make repeated jokes about mental illness during their chairmanship of Amnesty International because _________________________________”

    nowhere in the tweets posted does it say ‘I work for Amensty International and they support this message’.

    It appears to me that he used his own personal account, but associated his account with his IRL self. So to work for Amnesty International, anything you say or do, even in the bar down the road, must be acceptable to all and sundry else risk the wrath. How about we look at his facebook page as well. Better not be anything even remotely off color there either, or we’ll lock his ass up.

  17. Laurence, there is no comparison (as I suspect you realise) between attitudes and language that demeans disabled people and the attitude and language that Ciarnan Helferty used. His humour referenced OCD, for example. Just as someone can tell a joke which references Irish people without being a racist. The tone of a joke tells us if the humour is disparaging or not. There was nothing disparaging about the Twitter jokes that have been taken up by you, on this blog, to attack a man you don’t even know. You now publish comments on this thread alleging that Mr Helferty is an Irish Republican (presumably because he’s a Catholic from
    Northern Ireland). You’ve also made snide suggestions about his level of popularity with staff, following the recent restructuring debacle. So, yes, if one wished to use a blog to blow something out of proportion and systematically dismantle someone’s professional reputation and personal life, you’ve demonstrated that this is the place to do it. You must be very proud of your vast journalistic accomplishment.

  18. @Liam: Permit me to summarise events as you see them:

    1) Scurrilous bloggers spot Twitter jokes by Amnesty chair
    2) Blog post sensationalises the messages, blows them out of all proportion and foments a politically-correct backlash against chair
    3) Amnesty chair resigns

    But there are elements missing from this chronology, which no critics in this thread have got to grips with. With appropriate numbering, they might be inserted as follows:

    2.1) Amnesty immediately apologise to complaints on Twitter saying “Mental health jokes add to stigmatisation.”
    3.1) Amnesty issue statement through vice chair saying “remarks of this nature are not appropriate for someone leading an organisation at the forefront of the human rights debate.”

    You and others are entitled to the view that CH’s comments on Twitter were essentially benign and his resignation is unjustified. But that is not a view that is shared by Amnesty International UK — and that is where much of the criticism of us for publishing his comments falls flat on its face.

    P.S. Contrary to your claims, we have not alleged anything about CH’s personal life or his views on Irish republicanism. We have, however, deleted a couple of comments (from other people) from this thread on the latter.

    P.P.S. I assume from your last comment that you know CH personally?

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