Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

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


3:37 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)

This Bill arises from a case taken against Ireland by the EU Commission arising from an incontestable observation that the system for investigating marine accidents in Irish waters was flagrantly lacking in independence and grossly under-resourced. Ireland lost the case in July of last year. The heads of this Bill were presented late last year and discussed at the Oireachtas transport committee at the start of 2021. What was presented then is what we have now, which is a minimal piece of housekeeping.

I do not deny that the removal of Marine Survey Office, MSO, representatives, including its chief executive, from the board of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board is necessary. Put simply, in the course of marine casualty investigations, if they are performed thoroughly, promptly and with adequate resources, lapses on the part of the MSO can be uncovered, a body that holds the statutory responsibility for ensuring the seaworthiness of Ireland-flagged vessels, including such things as functioning radio equipment and adequate life-preserving equipment to be used in the event of a sinking. Where such faults are undetected by the MSO in its routine work, or where its enforcement of necessary repairs was lacking and the vessel subsequently sinks, or there is some onboard accident, then the MSO, alongside the vessel owners, has a case to answer. It is patently obvious that the MSO, through its chief executive, should never have had any oversight of accident reports.

I will refer Members to the intervention made by maritime safety expert, Michael Kingston, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks at the start of this year. For those watching this debate who do not know, Michael Kingston also happens to be the son of one of the victims of the Whiddy Island oil terminal disaster of some 40 years ago. He featured very movingly in a recent RTÉ radio documentary about that disaster. At the Oireachtas committee, he gave comprehensive and compelling testimony, backed up by a report he commissioned from Marine Hazard Limited, into the failings of the MCIB, which included whistleblower testimony of improper amendments made to MCIB accident reports to the effect of removing any uncomplimentary references to the MSO. I do not have time to give a full flavour of the Marine Hazard report, which is a devastating takedown of the system that prevails, but the lowlights include instances of accidents that were not investigated; a chickenfeed budget of an average €3,000 to €4,000 spend on investigating accidents, which is a fraction of what is spent on rail and air accident investigations; the absence of a dedicated directly employed staff of inspectors, unlike the rail and air equivalent statutory bodies; and, flowing from all this, massive delays in the delivery of reports.

Michael Kingston correctly made the point that the loss of the case in Europe and the findings of the Marine Hazard report pointed to the need for a radical overhaul of the system of investigating maritime accidents and the proper resourcing of such a body to remedy all the shortcomings. Instead, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, promised in February to commission another report to deal with those issues. He promised that such a report would be finalised and published within three months, in other words, by May. He hired a retired British naval captain, Stephen Clinch, now operating as a maritime safety consultant, to conduct the report. Captain Clinch completed his report and those interested parties who made submissions to him were cautiously optimistic. The report was completed and sent to the Department in July, where it remains unavailable to Members and the wider public. If it had been published, it may have made it very difficult for members of the Government to come to the House with this threadbare Bill. I now ask the Minister of State that the Clinch report is published forthwith so that we might have a real discussion on how we will improve the system of maritime safety in this State.

When some of us raised issues pertaining to the plight of migrant fishers in the aftermath of the sinking of the Ellie Adhamhoff the coast of Castletownbere in March this year, we did not lose sight of the maritime safety implications. I can report to the Minister of State that eight months on from that sinking the two surviving and, at that stage, undocumented Egyptian fishers have still not been contacted by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board. That speaks to me of a statutory body that requires more than a mere shuffling of members of its board of management.


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