Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage


2:57 pm

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, will be aware of the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny that took place on the general scheme of this Bill dating back to January last. The reason we as a State are introducing this legislation is that Ireland has had an illegally constituted Marine Casualty Investigation Board for some time. This Bill seeks to rectify that situation following the embarrassing judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union entered against Ireland on 9 July 2020.

However, this Bill simply does not go far enough as it does not address the fundamental failures of our marine casualty investigation system. The refusal over the years to fix these problems has led to multiple unnecessary deaths in the Irish maritime sector and it is happening in the wake of the Rescue 116 report which highlighted staggering systematic failures by the Department of Transport. The reality is if you do not investigate marine tragedies correctly you cannot identify the root cause of those tragedies and you cannot save life going forward, which is the very purpose of international and EU regulations. There are so many failed Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB, reports that have not identified the root cause of maritime accidents. These reports, including the one on the late Caitríona Lucas in Kilkee on 12 September 2015, have not made appropriate recommendations. Families across Ireland, including the families of the late John O'Brien and his friend, the late Pat Esmonde, are left in bewilderment as to what happened to their beloved relatives which is a fundamental breach of their rights as victims under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In initiating this Bill, the Department sought to avoid pre-legislative scrutiny. The Department argued that the Bill was urgent for the functioning of the MCIB in that if the Bill goes through it will increase the composition of the MCIB for quorum issues while a formal review is carried out. Crucially, that review has now been carried out by Captain Steve Clinch and was submitted to the Department in July 2021, which is four months ago. Despite several requests, the Department has not disclosed this report. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications has formally requested it and as late as Thursday last, at a meeting of the committee, I requested this document once again. However, the Department will not release it citing legal issues.

The Bill before us today finally presents the Oireachtas with an opportunity to fix a broken system and bring the State into line with international best practice by introducing into law the recommendations of the Captain Steve Clinch report. As the Minister of State will be aware, the current MCIB is run on a part-time basis and investigations are carried out by part-time investigators. This model is utterly insufficient. The investigators are also appointed to a panel on a short-term basis with minimal support, co-operation or training.

The concept of a board with part-time board members that have no maritime experience needs to change. What is required is a maritime accident investigation unit with a principal investigator. For example, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, MAIB, in the UK has a chief inspector who heads up the unit and a team of investigators with relevant competencies. The MAIB chief investigator reports directly to the Minister and is thereby empowered to make all operational decisions. Indeed, similar models are operated in many other countries, such as Iceland and Finland. Sweden goes a step further and bypasses the department of transport altogether, reporting to the Ministry of Justice, which makes absolute sense. In The Netherlands, they go a step further again, and have an independent national safety board encompassing transport, defence, healthcare and other areas, thus avoiding any political interference in accident investigation, which should be our ultimate aim in Ireland.

I have concerns that the Bill before us is in fundamental breach on the substantive point of competence as required by the EU directive. This Bill needs to be dramatically improved with a view to ensuring that we as a State finally address the question of competence, thereby dealing with our continued breach of the EU directive on these grounds while also avoiding the risk of further infringement proceedings against Ireland.

The Minister of State would be aware of the report by the barrister, Ms Roisin Lacey SC, in August 2010, which recommended a national multi-modal accident investigation office to amalgamate the existing Air Accident Investigation Unit, the Marine Casualty Investigation Board and the Rail Accident Investigation Unit. Ms Lacey also drafted heads of a Bill at that time to address all these issues. Therefore, the Minister of State will be aware that we are now into report number three over four decades, the most current being the Captain Clinch report of July 2021 which, no doubt, recommends an independent investigative unit, as the 1998 report did and the 2010 Roisin Lacey report did.

There is a real urgency to comprehensively deal with this very serious issue of marine casualty investigation. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for commissioning the Captain Clinch report on foot of the joint committee's request as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process.

Here is the Minister of State's opportunity to finally deal with these matters in a comprehensive fashion and bring Ireland in line with best international practice. Last week, we debated the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021. It had everything from the e-scooter to safety arrangements on the M50 included in it. If there is a will we can introduce the amendments necessary on Committee Stage. I am asking the Minister of State to introduce those amendments on Committee Stage to incorporate the recommendations of the Clinch report. I ask her to ensure that this happens as a fundamental aspect of the Bill currently before us and that the Clinch report is published immediately. The systematic failings of the maritime and search and rescue division of the Department of Transport are so serious that there should be a public inquiry in respect of these failings.

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response to my contribution. Listening to contributors from across the House, both opposition and backbench Deputies, and from across the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, there is consensus. We need change and we need the Clinch report recommendations included in this legislation.


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