Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

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

 

3:27 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)

That is fine. I just did not want anyone to be excluded.

One may ask why we are here. We are not here because of any concerns expressed in this House, and many concerns were expressed in this House. We are here because the European Commission took a case against Ireland and Ireland, as is often the case at the European Court of Justice, lost. I want to know, as Deputy Barry has asked - I mean Deputy Berry, although I am sure Deputy Barry will probably ask the same question - how much the case cost. We need to know that. We need to know how much money was wasted defending the indefensible because we have a habit of doing that, especially in European cases. Ireland has not lost all its cases before the European Court of Justice by any stretch but I would say the Irish State and its various manifestations has lost a lot more cases than it has won over there. How much money, therefore, was wasted defending the indefensible?The Minister of State needs to give us that figure. If she does not give it to us today I will be asking for the figure by way of a parliamentary question because it is important to ascertain. The European Court of Justice found: "... the MCIB is composed of five members, including the Secretary‑General of the ... [Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport], or his or her deputy, and the Chief Surveyor of the Marine Survey Office". It specifically said:

In view of the functions performed simultaneously by both those members, on the one hand, within the ... [Department] or the Marine Survey Office and, on the other, within the MCIB, their presence demonstrates that Ireland does not fulfil its obligations under Article 8(1) of [the] Directive ...

That obligation is to have an independent body to investigate marine casualties. How anybody could think the Secretary General of the Department is somehow impartial, especially if the board was to investigate itself, is simply beyond me. It is an indefensible proposition. Thus, I ask how much taxpayers' money was wasted on this.

I note Government backbenchers calling for people who are impartial, independent and have a knowledge of the sector to be appointed. I join them in that. That was not what happened when the Minister of State's party leader appointed people. He appointed people with no knowledge whatsoever. When that was questioned by Members of this House, the response was that because they know nothing whatsoever about the area - I should say here they knew much about Fine Gael, by their own admission - they were appointed. However, because they knew nothing about the marine casualty area, although they knew something about Fine Gael, they could not possibly be biased in the performance of their duties. That is equally ludicrous. That is a political charge I am levelling at the Minister of State. I am not saying she was the person who made the decision to appoint these people. She clearly was not. She was in the Oireachtas at the time but she was not in the Dáil. It did not fall to her but she is now the person who will be appointing more people to the board.

The Bill specifically precludes serving officers of the Department of Transport and certain persons who held a position in the Department for a previous five-year period from being eligible for appointment to the board. Can we expect a number of people who have been six years out of the Department on the board? I ask because that is the Government's tendency. I will return to that point. Can we expect civil servants from other Departments to be appointed? I ask because they are impartial civil servants. However, they are not really impartial, are they? If they have been part of the State apparatus for so long of course every inkling in their body is to defend the State at all costs and to take the approach that we will go to the European Court of Justice if we must but by God we will not ever admit we did anything wrong. That is a problem and one far broader than the MICB, although this is a hugely important area. People have lost their lives, relatives have been felt belittled by the Government's response and adequate investigations were not carried out. Deputy Mattie McGrath is not here. I look forward to him coming back to the Dáil. He specifically thanked Michael Kingston, the maritime lawyer and son of Tim Kingston who was killed in the Whiddy Island terminal disaster 40 years ago, and others. Who will appoint these people? Will it be the Public Appointments Service, PAS?

This is not something we should look back on with any great warmth but there was a time when all State boards were packed with former politicians. Now we do not appoint any of them and perhaps that is a good thing. Every State board being packed full of former senior civil servants is not any better. That is what we now have. That is how this State operates. We have senior civil servants who keep their heads down and do not challenge the status quo. Of course, their job is not to challenge the status quo but to serve and defend it while they are in the Civil Service. They are then only a couple of months out of the Civil Service when they are appointed to a beef task force led by a former senior civil servant or some other body made up of all former civil servants. They are people of integrity but the number of former senior civil servants on boards is simply not reflective of society and the various strengths from society on which we can draw to guide important State boards. I do not accept the idea of getting rid of former politicians while ensuring we have many civil servants on these boards. That is not the solution. It does not lead to a good culture within State boards, one conducive to those boards carrying out their duties. It is something the Minister of State's Government needs to look at it.

How much did this case cost to defend, why was it brought and who will now be appointed? Will it be former civil servants from the Department who will be six rather than five years retired, will it be other civil servants or will the Minister of State look for people with relevant experience from across society? That is not what is happening at the moment with regard to various Government appointments. It is not the Minister of State, it is the system and of course she is part of the apparatus.

That is how, unfortunately, our State functions at the moment. It is leading to a certain malaise within the State. It is leading to a State very ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we now face as a society. Obviously, there is the huge challenge posed by Covid-19, which it poses to every state. However, in the longer term - because I remain optimistic Covid-19 will pass and we will move on to other issues - there will be the economic ramifications of Brexit and the economic response to Covid-19, including hyperinflation which looks like a possibility. I am not saying we have anything like hyperinflation at the moment but we are moving into an inflationary period and everybody accepts that. Inflationary periods become hyperinflationary periods very quickly and easily. That leads to a political response, as we have seen through history, one which I am not looking forward to or look forward to my children having to live through.

If it is a case of "round up the usual suspects" and we will put them on a State board, that just will not deliver for this State on where it needs to be and where it needs to get to. I ask the Minister of State to reflect on that and bring it back to Cabinet. We cannot just continue with the usual suspects of former senior civil servants in every possible position. There are, and there needs to be, other skill sets in the country. As we see from the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB, if it is not former or even serving civil servants, it is people with links to Fine Gael. It is not good enough. How much money did it cost to defend that case that could have been used to make the marine sector in Ireland safer?

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