Thursday, 15 November 2007
I call on the Government to establish a rapid response unit to provide an immediate reaction to fishing trawlers and other seafaring craft which sink at sea. The purpose of this unit would be to attempt to establish cause and reduce the lengthy trauma on families in seafaring communities who are affected by these tragedies.
On 29 November 2005, when Pat Colfer, the captain of the Rising Sun, did not return home, the Kilmore Quay lifeboat was dispatched. However, by the time it got there it was too late. Two men were found in the sea. One survived, one died later and another man, Pat Colfer, was never found.
We also had the highlighted incidents of the sinking of the Maggie B on 29 March 2006 when a crew of two was lost off Hook Head in violent seas and on 10 January 2007 when the Père Charles was lost off Hook Head. The area between Hook Head and Kilmore Quay is known as the graveyard of 1,000 ships. I have no doubt many more tragedies will occur. People who take to sea are at risk.
I want a co-ordinated response to tragedies such as these. Given the stricter regime imposed by European regulations, fishing families must take more risks when providing for their loved ones. Another publicised incident was when the great man, Billy O'Connor from New Ross, a member of the Hook sub-aqua club, at the request of the Colfer family risked his life in visiting the wreck to search for remains at the time of the Rising Sun tragedy. He also lost his life. In recent days, an incident occurred off the Wexford coast at Tusker Rock when another trawler sank. On this occasion, all hands were rescued.
We know incidents which are as bad or worse will occur. Agencies and volunteers congregate to help. Although volunteerism is to be commended, we should not have to rely fully on it in this day and age. On those occasions, I witnessed the arguments which took place between the agencies and volunteers. They were extremely upsetting to the families and the community at large. Local politicians and the Minister with responsibility for the marine had to get involved to try to resolve some of the difficulties which occurred at the time of these tragedies. One wonders if we had a co-ordinated and quick response more immediate action would have taken place.
I compliment the Naval Service, the gardaí who worked tirelessly and the RNLI, a voluntary body which no words can adequately thank for the numerous rescues in which it took part over the years. Volunteerism must also be mentioned, as must the Irish Coast Guard, the Commissioners of Irish Lights and the Department of Defence for its helicopter service. If these were under the stewardship of an independent person to ensure an immediate response, could such an immediate response help save lives?
The Père Charles and the Maggie B were lifted recently, almost one year after the Père Charles sank. They were always going to be lifted because of political pressure at the time of the general election. If they were lifted immediately would we have found evidence of how the tragedies occurred? There might have been a greater prospect of finding the bodies if the response had been immediate. We urgently need a policy for sea safety. While we have a road safety policy, people also die at sea. Although occasionally nature is the reason, it is not good enough to depend on the good heart of volunteerism. To date we have not come up with an adequate policy. We need a co-ordinated response from a single body advising the various agencies and committees what will be done. That would allow a speedier and effective response. While we can get on with our lives, those families will always carry the load. It is up to us to ensure when future tragedies occur at sea we have a policy in place outlining what should be done.
As someone who lives close to Kilmore Quay and Carnsore Point, there are many other sea safety issues I would like to see addressed. Those are the communities wondering whether their loved ones will return each night. While I do not want to play on the heartstrings, this is a real issue. Those of us living close to coastal communities, including the Minister of State and Senator Ó Domhnaill realise the risks they take for us.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I am giving this response on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey. The Irish Coast Guard of the Department of Transport has the responsibility for the provision of the air and sea search and rescue in Ireland's search and rescue region, and marine pollution and casualty response in Ireland's marine pollution responsibility zone.
Search and rescue services in Ireland are provided through a combination of Irish Coast Guard emergency services and services provided by a number of charitable and voluntary organisations dedicated to search and rescue which are declared SAR resources to the Irish Coast Guard. The principal air and sea rescue declared resources in Ireland are the Irish Coast Guard all-weather helicopters based at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo airports, which include two back-up helicopters. These SAR helicopters are contracted to be airborne within 15 minutes between 7.30 a.m. and 9 p.m. and within 45 minutes between 9 p.m. and 7.30 a.m. There are 56 coastal and inland waterway coastguard units, which include 20 cliff rescue teams and 22 boat teams, 20 all-weather and 21 inshore RNLI lifeboats and nine boats of Community Rescue Boats Ireland. Coastguard units can assemble within ten minutes and RNLI lifeboats and community rescue boats launch within ten minutes.
Medico Cork, the marine pollution response team and the marine fire response team based at Dublin are other resources declared to the Irish Coast Guard. We also draw on resources from the Commissioners of Irish Lights and the Department of Defence and are in the process of agreeing formal service level agreements with these organisations. Discussions with the Health Service Executive are at an advanced stage for the provision of a paramedic rapid response unit for transport by the coastguard helicopters. The Department is reviewing the options to ensure emergency towing vessel capacity is available to protect the coast from the consequences of major oil pollution or vessel stranding.
The Irish Coast Guard co-ordinates all maritime search and rescue operations, including those services provided by the previously mentioned charitable and voluntary bodies. It also ensures appropriate equipment, facilities, personnel and training are in place among its many declared resources. Coastguard rescue co-ordination centres and a nationwide communications network are manned and equipped to receive distress calls and co-ordinate the response to incidents on land, around the coastline, inland waters and sea areas within its areas of responsibility for search and rescue, and casualty and pollution response. The Irish Coast Guard constantly evaluates its resources and risks and actively responds to ensure the necessary level of service and response is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year.
The Minister recognises that the challenges facing the Irish Coast Guard continue to change. The Irish Coast Guard undertakes ongoing training and re-equipping. He is satisfied that the strength of the air-sea rescue services is appropriate and that the arrangements in place compare favourably with best international practice.
I am disappointed with the reply. I believe that we do not take sea safety sufficiently seriously. Let us just wait and see what happens in coming months. When tragedies befall communities, as has happened in my community, we need to ensure a co-ordinated response is available. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Transport to rethink this policy. Perhaps at a later stage I might table a motion calling for the establishment of a sea safety authority.