Noel McGree was born in a rural village in Ireland. His parents owned a small grocery shop, and his dad supplemented the family income by driving a bus. In the summer McGree’s father drove a tour bus for Irish Tours. McGree started work at an early age in the family grocery store, but as he got older his father procured him a job as a Tour Guide, touring Europe. McGree stated “This (touring) was not as exotic as it sounded, as most of the tours entailed bringing Irish Catholic pilgrims to the religious shrine in Lourdes, south of France. The tours also included city tours of Paris and London, and I would narrate on the bus microphone. It was a brilliant learning experience for a young guy of 18, 19, 20 years of age, and I developed a maturity and people skills while traveling all over Europe.”
McGree’s mother wanted her son to find a steady career and in 1993 saw an ad in the newspaper for prison officers in the Irish Prison Service. “In Ireland, the Irish Prison Service is a government job and is very well paid, with a great state pension after thirty years,” McGree noted. “The salary and conditions in the 1990s were very good because we had to deal with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who were well funded and organized. It was recognized as necessary for prison officers to be well paid in order to prevent possible corruption, etc.”
In 1994, McGree was hired at twenty-one to work at the Mountjoy Prison in Dublin City, Ireland. Mountjoy was a British Empire prison built in 1850 and never upgraded. There were no toilets, no showers, and no television, and McGree described it as “rough and tough and I loved it.” Prison officers in Ireland are not armed and are only provided a baton. The batons were “frowned on to carry as it signaled your intent,” and McGree stated that a prison officer had to “rely on people skills to negotiate situations or be good with your fists if things went wrong. I was good with both and fitted right in.” McGree ran a “landing” which consisted of 28 cells and 125 prisoners who were in an unlocked environment from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with McGree in the middle of the crowd. Mattresses lay on the floor, and in each of the 28 cells was a bucket that had to be emptied each day.
A new and modern prison, Midlands Prison was built in 2000 in Portlaoise, Ireland, and McGree transferred in the same year. Midlands Prison was known as a “game changer” as it had one prisoner to one cell, and each cell had a shower, kettle and television. McGree stated, “prison officers provided all the services in Irish prisons as this was meant to prevent corruption by an outside contract worker and maintain State control.” This allowed prison officers to be trained in a variety of fields: gym or sports, metal or woodwork, food safety and catering. It allowed a prison officer to take a few years learning a craft while working the “frontlines” and then moving into their area of interest. McGree’s interest was in cooking, and he started working in the catering section of the Midlands.
There was a catering team of 8 prison officers and 40 prisoners to cater 3 meals a day for 900 prisoners and 100 staff members. McGree was sent out to learn food safety and catering at a high enough level that he would return to give course training to prisoners and certify them for work in restaurants or hotels. McGree stated: “I enjoyed the work and would regularly meet ex-prisoners working outside who I had trained. One guy I trained had served 8 years for drug supply but became a pastry chef and now has his own cake shop.”
In 2012, the threat of the IRA had lessened in Ireland due to the Northern Ireland peace process, and the prisons now contained regular prisoners instead of political prisoners. This resulted in a salary reduction for Irish Prison staff and created a system where outside contracted services filled jobs previously held by trained prison staff. “This created a subsection of less paid and less motivated staff who were open to corruption and less loyal to their profession or employer,” McGree stated. “Corruption was rife and Midlands Prison was like the Shawshank Redemption.”
The various prison services using prison resources were being utilized for commercial enterprises. For example, the metal shop was using prison materials to make iron gates that the prison officer was selling for cash to the public. The catering department was using the prison kitchen to cater private parties in public bars and clubs. Prison food was being diverted and sold to individuals who used the food for occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and funerals. McGree admits that he turned a “blind eye” to the corruption and continued on with his professional duties, but one day in 2013, his boss told him to take items from the prison kitchen to a waiting van. His boss used the food for his own commercial food venues. McGree refused the order and advised his boss that it was not his job to spirit food from the kitchen.
The next day, McGree says he was “barred from working in the prison catering section, and despite being a 20 year veteran with 12 years experience in the catering section, found himself back on the frontline with junior recruit prison officers.” There was no whistleblower law in Ireland in 2013, and McGree was afraid to report corruption because he feared being labeled a “rat.” He decided to report the risk of replacing him in the catering section with an untrained, unqualified person, explaining how it was a “health risk” and a waste of resources as prisoners could no longer be trained or certified for food service. McGree wanted to throw light on his treatment without reporting corruption because he wanted to be returned to his old job in catering, where “we could all just get on with our lives and their corruption could continue while they left me alone to just do the job I liked.”
McGree said the response from the Governor of Midlands Prison was further retaliation against him. He was subjected to disciplinary allegations, which were subsequently proven to be false but took up his time and energy. McGree then elevated his allegations to the Irish Prison Service Headquarters, but the result was an intensification of negative treatment in March of 2016. The Department of Justice-Ireland (DOJ-I) notified McGree that a whistleblower law had been passed in June of 2014 (the Protected Disclosure Act (PDA) of 2014).
The DOJ-I advised McGree that his allegations could fall under the PDA, and appointed a retired judge to assess McGree’s case. A report was published in February of 2017 by DOJ-I and announced that McGree was a whistleblower who had made protected disclosures under the PDA. The report also found that McGree was retaliated against for raising concerns and complaining about retaliation. The corruption McGree had observed was not mentioned in the report, but McCree did receive a letter of apology from the head of Prison Service, and one from the DOJ-I. McGree “felt good and believed that he was at the end of his journey.” He was given his old job back in the catering section and thought everything “got sorted out.”
Back at work, McGree’s line managers and those he worked with viewed him as a whistleblower, and therefore dangerous. The corruption in the catering section had become so bad since McGree’s removal that daily shortages of food were becoming common. The lack of food was causing tension and violent outbursts among the prisoners, and McGree feared someone else would report the corruption and he would be implicated as revenge for his previous whistleblowing. The DOJ-I ruled earlier that McGree was “sincere and trustworthy” and with 25 years of service without a disciplinary sanction, McGree felt he was now in a position where he had to expose more than just “health care risks” in catering.
McGree reported the corruption involving improper conversion of food products and prison materials to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), an oversight committee of the Irish government. McGree provided private testimony in November of 2018, and in January of 2019, the PAC brought the Prison Service in front of them for a televised public session to answer McGree’s allegations. The national media picked up McGree’s story, and he was named as a Prison Service Whistleblower.
Retaliation was swift and brutal, with McGree’s locker being defaced with black paint noting “rat” and urinated on. McGree’s supervisor took a phone from a prisoner and used it to make calls to McGree’s home several times, replaced the phone back in the prisoner’s cell, then ordered a search of the same cell. The phone was found and used in an investigation of McGree for alleged collusion with the prisoner because of the calls to his house. McGree was called names at work, whistled at, and verbally abused. False disciplinary reports were filed, and McGree was “set up” at work to deal with dangerous prisoners by himself with no backup.
McGree was aware that his safety was of concern at work, and reported the retaliation, and “refused to go to work.” The Prison Service removed McGree from their payroll, and with no income, McGree found employment at the Marriott Hotel in Dublin as concierge and head of security in April of 2019. McGree stated, “For all of 2019, my family survived on tips I received from the American tourists.”
In October 2019, an investigator was appointed by DOJ-I to look at McGree’s case, and in January of 2020, a report was issued. The report noted that McGree had revealed organized corruption in the Prison Service, and the loss exceeded 20 million euros ($24,319,800) over an eight-year period. It was recommended that the case be turned over to law enforcement for an official investigation, yet on the same day, McGree was terminated from his Prison Service job due to absence at work. The DOJ-I report noted that McGree’s career advancement was sabotaged and he was treated unfairly and isolated.
McGree received a reduced pension in March 2020, and at the same time lost his hotel employment due to COVID-19. In December 2020, law enforcement contacted McGree and asked for his assistance in the investigation of corruption within the Prison Service. McGree’s house was vandalized, and McGree stated, “I have lost my career, my income, a job I loved and was good at, a community where I belonged with social and sports clubs. Everything is gone. We will lose our family home because my pension is a quarter of my previous salary and I can’t afford my mortgage. My family is totally destroyed, receiving no support and yet they want me to assist the police investigation of organized state corruption.”
McGree stated that his case “is an example of a relatively minor issue becoming a major situation because of the massive response to whistleblowing. Originally, when I raised my concerns there were no whistleblowing laws in Ireland. My concerns were retrospectively labeled as whistleblowing. I am just a regular guy who wanted to do his job to the best I could. Clearly, I never wanted any of this.”
McGree’s case is seen as significant in Ireland because he was one of the first to report under the PDA. He is now one of ten whistleblowers who have banded together seeking to exert political pressure for better protection of whistleblowers. Although McGree’s fellow whistleblowers have come from various career fields, they have discovered that the tactics employed against them are “all very similar.” They have established a Twitter account @BlowersIreland, and requested that Ireland use their two-year period on the United Nations Security Council to put forth the international protection of whistleblowers.
McGree has spent the last eight years pursuing justice, but has exhausted all possible avenues and now turns to the Irish High Court because the Irish government has refused to accept the findings of their own reports. McGree said “that he is granted investigations which take forever, and then the findings are ignored. When I complain, they suggest another investigation.” There has been a considerable amount of media attention in Ireland due to the fact that the Prime Minister and Justice Minister refuse to protect and assist McGree.
“All of my earlier complaints were in relation to my employer, the Prison Service, but as a public servant, I elevated my complaints all the way to the top,” McGree stated “They ignored my pleas for assistance and referred my complaints back to the Prison Service, then they breached my confidentiality. In short, they exposed my reporting of corruption within the Prison Service, who then retired me in response. Obviously, if my complaint was upheld, it could bring down the government and cause an election, hence the media attention.”
When asked why he was the only one to blow the whistle, McGree advised that corruption was rampant within the Prison Service, so everyone had a “project” or something to hide. When McGree was ordered to steal food for his supervisor and the supervisor’s private catering company, McGree thought it “was probably a test and a way to include me in the corruption. When everyone is included then they are less likely to report it.”
Like whistleblowers throughout the world, McGree was forced to confront two roads diverging in the woods and took the one less traveled. He took the hero’s path but finds the costs exceedingly high.
Read an Irish Examiner article about McGree here.
Read an article from The Irish Times about McGree’s whistleblowing here.
View McGree’s Twitter page here.
Visit McGree’s GoFundMe page here.
Disclaimer: Any links to a whistleblowers website or fundraising pages are done as a courtesy. WNN does not control these fundraising pages and does not take a percentage of any of the funds raised.