Dáil debates

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Adjournment Debate

Ballymanus Mine Disaster

8:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Alan Shatter, to the House.

The issue I raise is a very important one that affected west Donegal. The Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, will be familiar with the stories that come from that part of the country. This one scarred a whole community. It happened a very long time ago, well before my time, and was brought to my attention only in recent years. It relates to the Ballymanus mine disaster, one of the worst events that happened in this country during the Second World War. Last week marked the worst event in the history of the State, the bombing by the Germans of a part of Dublin in which more than 20 people lost their lives. In Ballymanus in west Donegal, 19 young men lost their lives. Their ages ranged from 14 to 34 years. Some came from the same household; one family lost three sons. Many of those killed were very young lads with their whole lives in front of them.

The incident happened on 10 May 1943. A mine came ashore at Ballymanus and a crowd gathered to watch it. As the mine came closer to the shore it is understood that some of the people present tried to throw a rope around it. Although the mine had been spotted earlier that day and reported to the gardaí at around 6.45 p.m. it did not explode until 10 p.m.

The reason I raise the matter is my belief that the families of those who lost their lives in the Ballymanus mine disaster deserve an apology or an acknowledgment from the State that it did not carry out its responsibilities in the way it should have. I understand there have been previous efforts with a previous Government to seek an apology. I realise the issue of compensation may be a stumbling block and therefore I ask the Minister to be open-minded and not merely to refer to the civil servants' script but to look for a way that protects the State but allows the families to put this issue behind them.

There are many documents relating to the period which clearly show that once a report was provided to the Garda that a mine was coming onshore it was the responsibility of gardaí to ensure the area was cordoned off. I have a report of an ard-cheannfort of the Garda that was sent to every Garda station and garda in the State. It states: "Whenever a report that an explosive article has been washed ashore is received at any Garda station the member-in-charge will immediately take such steps as are necessary to ensure that no one approaches to within 500 yards of the article and will at once report the matter to the nearest military post." I reiterate this mine was reported to the Garda three hours and fifteen minutes before the explosion but gardaí did not attend the site. The Secretary of the Department of Defence in 1943 stated in a report: "You will observe from the report that the instruction was not observed" - namely, the instruction to cordon off the area - "by the local gardaí in as much as they did not take any steps to prevent members of the public from approaching the mine."

I have another document, referred by officials to the Minister's predecessor, Gerard Boland, in 1943 which states: "The Chief Superintendent has expressed the opinion that the request for the inquiry was made as the outcome of hostility against the local sergeant who apparently has been unpopular in the area for a long time and who was, of course, guilty of grave neglect of duty in this matter." It is clear that such was the view of officials at the time and after the inquiry that took place.

The Minister may not be able to do so tonight because he has been provided with a speech by officials but will he state clearly that he will examine the issue of bringing closure to the relatives and families and the entire community of that area of west Donegal who suffered so much as a result of the war? I do not claim that the sergeant mentioned in the report caused the deaths - of course he did not. However, there was a clear instruction and he should have done something but did not. The Department of Defence clearly stated as much, as did the sergeant in later correspondence with investigators. This is an opportunity for the State to issue an apology to the families.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The matter raised relates to a tragic incident that occurred on Ballymanus Strand, County Donegal, on 10 May 1943, in which 18 people tragically lost their lives when a wartime mine floated ashore and exploded. This tragic incident was also raised by the Deputy in Parliamentary Question No. 281 on today's Order Paper and was previously raised in this House as Parliamentary Question No. 512 on 13 May 2008 and in an Adjournment debate in the Seanad on 23 April 2008. In October 2010, my predecessor met with Senator Brian Ó Dómhnaill and the son of one of the men who tragically lost his life that day and the question of an apology from the State was discussed.

This House has previously heard details of the sequence of events leading up to the tragedy, based on information gleaned from the files in the National Archives but for the sake of completeness I will briefly outline the facts as I understand them. On 10 May 1943 a report was made to gardaí at Annagry in County Donegal at 6.45 p.m. that an object, believed to be a mine, was floating in the sea between Mullaghdearg Point and Broad Strand. The gardaí reported the matter to the lieutenant in the local marine service who went to Ballymanus Strand shortly afterwards. The mine was more than a mile offshore at this time. The lieutenant warned a group of men who were present on the strand to stay away. He waited there for over two hours until the mine came ashore and again warned those present to stay away from it. In his report he noted that the reaction of some of those present to him was almost hostile. The reports state it appears that when the lieutenant left the site at 9.50 p.m. to report the matter to his ordnance officer some of the men present on the strand proceeded to haul the mine ashore with ropes and some attempted to unscrew portions of it. The mine exploded at 10 p.m., killing 17 men at the scene. Another man died in hospital the following day. Five others were injured. Those who died ranged in age from 13 to 34. Eight were under the age of 18.

The file shows that an inquest was held the day after the event. Consideration was given at the time to holding an inquiry into the matter. However, it seems from the file that there was little local demand for an inquiry at the time. It was noted that a number of local representatives were of the view that nothing would be gained from such an inquiry and a meeting of local clergy apparently also came to the same conclusion. A report on file states that a meeting of the next-of-kin of the deceased was held on the 24 May which decided unanimously that no demand be made for an inquiry. The Departments of Defence and Justice came to the conclusion that an inquiry would not serve any useful purpose. The coroner was informed that no official inquiry was proposed and the inquest was reconvened on the 28 May.

The verdict of the inquest was that the deaths were caused by the explosion of the mine. The jury added riders to its verdict, stating that the disaster could have been avoided if the Garda sergeant at Annagry had cordoned off the area in the immediate vicinity of the mine until the arrival of the military; that there was disagreement as to whether the lieutenant of the coast watching service was negligent; and that it was the jury's opinion that the military authorities should be asked to establish a coast watching post in the vicinity of Ballymanus.

There is a report on file from the Garda superintendent of the area stating his opinion that the sergeant involved had not dealt properly with the report of the mine, that he failed to go to the scene before the explosion and that no attempt was made to cordon off the area. It is noted on the file that there was bad feeling locally about this.

As I have said, this was an appalling tragedy for the community of Ballymanus and the whole country. However, it must be questionable whether, 68 years after the event, it would be practical to inquire into whether anything more should have been done to prevent the dreadful loss of life, or to apportion blame or pass judgment on the actions of the individuals or organisations involved. Few of those directly involved are still alive to defend or explain themselves. Those who are alive have distant memories of what occurred. I have listened carefully to the Deputy's request for some form of apology to be given. I will reflect on what he had to say about this tragic event. I thank him for raising the matter. It is important not to forget such events. Of course I am deeply saddened by what happened in Ballymanus. I offer my personal sympathies to all those who lost loved ones on that dreadful day in 1943.