Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

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


3:37 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)

I will share time with Deputy Collins. I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on Second Stage of this Bill. The reason we, as a State, are introducing this legislation is because Ireland has had a potentially illegally constituted Marine Casualty Investigation Board for some time. This Bill seeks to rectify the situation following the embarrassing judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union entered against Ireland on 9 July 2020. It is incredible that the European Commission's case against Ireland commenced in 2015 and the Department fought its untenable position for five years instead of putting its hands up and fixing it in 2015. How many millions in legal fees were spent in defending this indefensible position?

We are still not fixing that position. As Deputy O'Rourke said, this Bill is the equivalent of putting a sticking plaster over a gaping hole on the body of our marine investigative system. As other Members have said, it is astonishing to hear that we have an independent aviation investigation unit that spent a fortune in 2019, and one for rail also spending a fortune, yet only €27,000 was spent on investigations in the field of our maritime accidents and incidents. This is an appalling approach. How far would the Rescue 116 investigation have got with such a small amount of money?

As the Minister of State knows, I come from a constituency in County Kerry with a vast coastline and hardworking fishermen all along our coast. I understand from the Marine Hazards Limited report published on 4 January 2021, which was introduced at pre-legislative scrutiny stage, that many accidents where fishermen lost their lives have not been investigated. What sort of system is that? Are fishermen second-class citizens? Are their lives worthless? Are their families, who are hurting and grieving so hard and for so long, to be left in the wilderness without having their situations investigated, as would be the case if this happened in any other sector of life in Ireland?

I understand the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications allowed the Bill to go forward on the condition that a report by Captain Steve Clinch would be furnished to it immediately upon receipt. The committee report states:

The Committee believes that the review is a matter of urgency. The Committee understands that the report is due in July 2021 and expects to receive a copy as soon as it is finalised and will seek to discuss its findings and recommendations shortly thereafter as soon as is practicable.

However, that report has been with the Department for the four months since July and has not been disclosed by it.

As Deputy Carey and others, have said, 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 one does not investigate marine tragedies correctly, one cannot identify their root causes and cannot save lives going forward, which is the very purpose of international and EU regulations. I also understand that an independent investigations unit based on best practice was recommended in 1998, following an expensive and extensive report, but it did not happen. There was a further report in 2010 by a barrister, Ms Róisín Lacey, which included draft heads of a Bill for an independent investigative unit, but this did not happen and the Lacey report has never been disclosed.

In 2011, we incorrectly transposed an EU directive, leaving the two civil servants on the board and failing to fix the issue of competence. Where are the Department officials in all of this? I understand they were part of Ireland's delegation at the International Maritime Organization that negotiated the international casualties investigative code that formed the basis of the EU directive. They must have known they should not have been on the MCIB. What steps has the Minister of State taken on the accountability of this obvious failure?

This issue comes on the back of the incredible failures of the Department in the Rescue 116 situation; the systematic failures that are again being demonstrated here. This Bill needs to go back to committee to be fixed properly and amended totally to implement the recommendations of the Clinch report of July 2021 and the Róisín Lacey draft heads of Bill and report from 2010. To echo Deputy Carey, there needs to be an immediate public inquiry into all of these systematic failures. Too many lives have been lost in our maritime community and our precious rescue services because of these failures.

I recognise and acknowledge the work of Mr. Michael Kingston who is an expert in this field. I remember today an incident that happened many years ago in Whiddy Island, which as the crow flies is very near to where I live in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. The tragedy claimed an awful lot of lives, for which we were very sorry. An awful lot of questions needed to be answered at that time and they were not. Many families were left without their fathers, brothers and husbands and many issues surrounding that tragedy still need to be looked at to bring closure for those families.

I say to all of the people who have been adversely affected by the failings of the Department of Transport, not just now, in the past two years or in the lifetime of this Government, but going back many years and indeed decades, they have been let down. Be they people in the rescue services where lives were lost or those working in the maritime industry, there were many failings and many questions left unanswered. I look to the Minister of State to use this time, her time and this Government's time, to put right the wrongs of the past and to try to rectify the situation.

No more than when we are talking about road deaths in Ireland, it is only right and proper to stand up and say we are so sorry for the families that have been affected. If a family is watching and listening to this, the one thing that has to be shown is respect for the dead. For all of the people who have lost their lives at sea or in rescue missions, we are terribly sorry this has happened and that tragedy befell their families. I think of all of those terribly important people whose lives were cut short because of incidents. Making a living from the sea and working in the maritime industry can be dangerous and hazardous and it is a tough way of life. When things go wrong, they can go horribly and tragically wrong, as has happened. My heartfelt and sincere sympathy to all of those people.

I ask for some of the questions I have raised to be addressed and considered. It is like every job of work in that I am sure there are good people in the Department and while much of what I have said here today might be critical of what has gone on in the past, I have confidence in people for the future to put right the wrongs; to knuckle down to the job of work at hand and to use the expertise in the Department now to try to get this right; to use this opportunity to do it right once and for all and not to be looking back in the future but to look forward with hope that we will get things right.

I again recognise and acknowledge Mr. Michael Kingston and others who have put an awful lot of effort, work, drive, energy and determination into raising the issues and highlighting the wrongs. It looks as though Deputy Michael Collins will not be here. I do not know whether his time can be kept but obviously, it is at the Acting Chairman's discretion.


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