Thursday, 4 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Coast Guard Service
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Dáil to discuss this. Sometimes Ministers who are not from a particular Department take Topical Issue matters and I appreciate the fact she has come in to take this one. This is an issue which affects my constituency, which is evidenced by the fact that two of us raised this Topical Issue matter and it was also raised in other manners by other Deputies and Senators.
We need to get the Doolin Coast Guard unit reinstated but we need to address the issues that led us to where we are because the reality is there is a toxic working environment in the Coast Guard station in Doolin and there has been for some time. Unfortunately it is not unique to Doolin; it exists the length and breadth of this country. There is a lack of confidence in the most senior management in the Irish Coast Guard on behalf of the rank and file. They feel nobody has their back and they have no representative body, so if they speak out, they will be singled out for disciplinary measures where they will be accompanied by another volunteer. I appreciate there was an attempt to establish a representative body for them but the vast majority of those in it are former members rather than current members.
It is a morass and we will not solve it tonight but the Minister of State needs to take a long look at it. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, spoke about visiting Doolin and I was there myself when its lovely new shining Coast Guard station was opened. The officer in charge there was Mattie Shannon, a man who gave his lifetime to the Irish Coast Guard in Doolin. He left the Irish Coast Guard but the Minister of State should talk to him and ask him why he left. She should also talk to the many others who left the Doolin Coast Guard unit one by one. People of that sort of dedication do not leave unless there is something badly wrong. I ask the Minister of State not to talk to the head of the Irish Coast Guard. The head of the Irish Coast Guard will tell her a story but it will not be one that will be recounted by the rank and file on the ground.
I also want to recognise and welcome the Minister of State's presence for this debate. This is an evolving situation in Doolin which has resulted in six volunteers resigning earlier this week. These resignations have taken place amid claims of bullying and harassment in the service. I have serious concerns about the standing down of the service and the circumstances in which this happened. We have hard-working volunteers in Doolin and throughout the Irish Coast Guard, but unfortunately they are not being listened to. A culture of bullying and harassment has developed within the Irish Coast Guard that has been left to evolve without check and that is desperately disappointing.
We need a ministerial intervention and I implore the Minister of State to appoint an independent and competent person to have a serious look at the situation in Doolin. I agree with Deputy McNamara that this is not just an issue for Clare or Doolin; this is widespread throughout the country. Former and current volunteers are speaking out because of the issues which have emerged. It is unfortunate and sad for me to say that the coastguard system is under huge stress. We will not have a coastguard service in the future if we do not address the issues that have emerged in Doolin. There are 12 volunteers in Doolin who are more than capable of carrying out tasks such as cliff rescue, ambulance assistance and search. They should be allowed to continue with that work and be reinstated as a matter of urgency. I ask that the Minister of State take my views and those of Deputy McNamara and other Oireachtas Members across County Clare on board and that we get to work on this straight away.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to come before the House. The temporary standing down of Doolin Coast Guard unit operations is a proportionate response having regard to significant ongoing attempts by the Irish Coast Guard to address the unfortunate differences that have existed within the unit and their impact on the unit. Equally, the recent resignations of several Doolin Coast Guard volunteers have contributed to this decision.
The key objective is to ensure the safety of the volunteers. The action is being taken in compliance with the search and rescue assurance obligations set out in the national search and rescue plan.
As regards contingency plans, I have been advised by my officials that these are fully in place. The Inis Oírr Coast Guard unit, which falls under the direct management of the Doolin unit, shall continue to remain fully operational. In the interim, the Coast Guard is liaising with other search and rescue stakeholders in the area to provide full cover for services that otherwise would be provided by the Doolin unit.
The Coast Guard is currently deploying various contingencies based on an assessment of risk within the area, and in particular Kilkee and Killaloe Coast Guard units. All other Coast Guard units, shoreline and cliff rescue services remain in place, along with the four search and rescue Coast Guard helicopters. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, community rescue boats and Naval Service will continue to assist, particularly in those areas of greatest risk, until the issue has been resolved.
The Coast Guard and the Department have taken these unfortunate differences within the Doolin unit volunteers extremely seriously and have consistently striven over the past number of years to try to assist in the repair of the breakdown in relationships that have occurred within the unit. These actions include: dignity and respect training for the Doolin unit; a number of facilitated group meetings with the unit; one-to-one sessions with Irish Coast Guard management and the Doolin unit members; and an independent investigation by a HR consultancy with subsequent report and follow-up actions and recommendations.
Follow-up actions included an intensive support package put in place with the coastal unit sector manager attending training sessions weekly in Doolin to monitor and assist in supervising the situation. Unfortunately, during the period of March 2020 to April 2021, there were limitations on volunteer training due to COVID restrictions. Confidential counselling services are also contracted by the Coast Guard and are readily available to all volunteers who wish to avail of these services.
The Irish Coast Guard very much acknowledges and recognises the strenuous efforts and leadership displayed by many members of the unit, its management team and other stakeholders to address these difficulties. The Irish Coast Guard will continue to offer support to all those affected by this event with the aim of strengthening the unit's management structure and providing relevant training and mediation services as may be required.
The Irish Coast Guard is committed to supporting the near 900 dedicated volunteers who help provide the important and life-saving services of the Coast Guard. Ongoing consultation with Coast Guard volunteers is key to the success of the Coast Guard. For this reason, Coast Guard volunteers have for some time had a representative body called the Coastal Unit Advisory Group. This group represents Irish Coast Guard volunteers and provides advice and input to the Coast Guard under agreed terms of reference between management and the volunteers. This group meets regularly and is involved in working with Coast Guard management to deliver a world-class service while protecting the safety and well-being of the volunteers within the Coast Guard units. My office has been in touch with the Coastal Unit Advisory Group with a view to arranging a meeting shortly.
I understand the so-called representative body the Coastal Unit Advisory Group, CUAG, is basically a grouping of officers in charge. That is a good body. I have no problem with it. That is a bit like saying that a collective of sergeants represents the workforce of An Garda Síochána across the board. That is not the case. The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors does not represent the entirety of An Garda Síochána. It never has. It never will. It was not set up to do so. I would ask the Minister of State to revisit that assumption.
I would also ask the Minister of State to look at the bigger issues. Why are so many leaving? As I say, people do not leave unless there is a problem. Unless management takes the problem and deals with it, it will not change.
The Minister of State mentioned Covid difficulties. There was an officer in charge in Crosshaven targeted for carrying out activities contrary to Covid, as in getting a rig out on the water when there were many similar boats all over the country up on social media. Why was he targeted?
The culture within the Coast Guard is if one speaks out for one's fellow volunteers, one is targeted. One is silenced. It is toxic and the Coast Guard will not survive that unless the Minister of State, at a political level, takes it in hand. There is no confidence in the most senior management among the volunteers. That is what they are - volunteers who risk their lives to try to protect others. We should never forget that. They deserve a lot better than what they are getting at present.
I attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association in Kilkee a couple of weeks ago. There were current and former members of the Coast Guard - all volunteers from Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Galway and Clare - and they spoke openly about the challenges they face every day in terms of widespread harassment and bullying within the service.
One has to ask the question of why so many people are leaving the service. Morale is at an all-time low. Volunteers are leaving. They are not being listened to. They are not being engaged with in a proper manner by management on high.
There is need for a root-and-branch review of the Coast Guard service in terms of management and volunteers, and how they work together. The Minister of State must commit to that. The Minister of State also must commit to the appointment of an independent competent person to try to iron out the issues in Doolin and reinstate that vital service that they have delivered so well over many years.
I hear the concerns of the Deputies. We are endeavouring to address these issues.
As regards the terms of reference of the coastal advisory group, the purpose of the coastal advisory group is to provide a structured method of consultation and communication between the Irish Coast Guard and volunteer members. It recognises a key role that the volunteers play in delivering search and rescue in Ireland. As such, it provides the volunteers with that formal opportunity to contribute, and to consult and liaise on matters impacting on the performance of search and rescue activities in which the volunteers are engaged. It is for that reason that I have contacted them in order to meet them. I hope to do that shortly regarding these issues.
I reiterate that the Coast Guard and my Department will continue to offer support to all those affected by this event in Doolin with the aim of strengthening the unit's management structure and providing relevant training and mediation services as may be required to resolve the issues within the unit with a view to returning Doolin to operational readiness as quickly as practicable. As advised by my officials, all other Coast Guard units' shoreline and cliff rescue services remain in place. Along with the four search and rescue Coast Guard helicopters, the RNLI, community rescue boats and the Naval Service will continue to assist.
I join the Deputies in praising the great work of our 900 volunteers right across the country who provide an exemplary public service in our time of need. They need to be supported. I look forward to that engagement with the Coastal Unit Advisory Group.