Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Coast Guard Service
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. There was a considerable amount of shock across County Clare when the announcement came last week that the Coast Guard at Doolin was to be stood down, effectively, or as is referred to in the business as "off the board". That has upset many people, particularly those whose loved ones have required the services of the Doolin Coast Guard. It is one of the best known coastguards not just in County Clare but right across the country because it has had such a high profile in search and rescue operations on so many occasions. Sadly, it has also played its part in recovering the bodies of people who have ended their lives off the Cliffs of Moher. It is really a difficult and sad position.
We understand there were some internal human resources issues within the group. That is not any different from any organisation, office or business, and of course issues will arise between people. It is really the job of management, specifically at the national level in the Coast Guard, to address such an issue. Efforts have been made along the way and, unfortunately, they have not been good enough to resolve the problem. If this happened in the private sector, the matter would be resolved and brought to a head.
I appeal to the Minister of State to involve at the earliest possible opportunity some independent external expert in human resources to try to find a resolution. Standing the operation down and suggesting the Coast Guard based at the Aran Islands or some other location will fill the void is just not feasible. There are currently 12 volunteers on the base and perhaps there is a way to get them up and running as a service. They certainly have the capacity to do some of the work. I do not want to be prescriptive but the Minister of State and the Department must intervene and bring in an external and independent expert. I hope such an expert could meet willingness on both sides to engage.
Other efforts are being made and we must be careful in this respect. I appeal to the Minister of State to address this at the earliest possible opportunity.
I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. I agree there was shock and sadness in the whole of County Clare last week when we heard the news the Doolin Coast Guard was to be stood down. Much progress had been made, with Doolin getting a pier and a first-class and state-of-the-art rescue centre a number of years ago with the efforts of the now Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar. The equipment is good and the facilities are excellent. Unfortunately, this problem has been bubbling for some time and it must be resolved.
There is no other way around it but for it to be resolved and it will require the intervention of the Minister and the Department. There is no faith in the Coast Guard directly resolving this problem and, to a large extent, the Coast Guard is seen as part of the problem. As urgently as possible, the Minister must appoint an independent mediator to go to Doolin and engage with all parties because all of the parties involved have worked hard. Some of the past and serving members have given most of their volunteering lives to the Doolin Coast Guard, rescuing many people and recovering many bodies.
We owe it to those people who have volunteered, both in the past and present, to resolve the matter. We owe it to the people they have rescued. We owe it to the families of the loved ones whose bodies have been recovered and brought home by the Doolin Coast Guard. We owe it to the people of County Clare and those who visit the county.Most of all, we owe it to the people who use the coast to give them confidence that the superb Doolin Coast Guard is there if they get into trouble when fishing, surfing or swimming. When people get into difficulty, there is great confidence that the Doolin Coast Guard has the expertise and experience to come to their rescue. They have the equipment, determination and focus. There is a problem there and it is up to the Government to resolve it.
I thank the Senators for raising this issue. The temporary standing down of the Doolin Coast Guard unit operation is a proportionate response, having regard to significant ongoing attempts by the Coast Guard to address the unfortunate differences that have existed within the unit for a number of years and their impact on the unit. However, attempts to resolve the situation to date have not been successful and I believe there is a role for an independent person or mediator to be appointed to the Doolin unit with a view to resolving the difficulties. I intend to meet with officials in my Department shortly to discuss the next steps in the appointment of such a person. To be clear on the rationale for the action of standing down the Doolin unit, the key objective is to ensure the safety of the volunteers.
The action is being taken in compliance with search and rescue assurance obligations set out in the national search and rescue plan and I have been advised that contingency plans are in place. I am in regular contact with Department officials on this matter. As Senators know, the Inis Oírr Coast Guard unit, which falls under the direct management of the Doolin unit, shall continue to remain fully operational and 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 RNLI community rescue boats and the Naval Service will continue to assist, particularly in those areas of greatest risk until the issue has been resolved.
Doolin Coast Guard unit is unique compared with the majority of units in the country in that it has had several years of significantly unresolved, internal, interpersonal difficulties. The Coast Guard and my Department have taken these unfortunate differences between the Doolin unit volunteers extremely seriously and have consistently met and engaged with the Doolin unit over the past number of years to try to assist in the repair of the breakdown in relationships that has occurred within the unit. A review was conducted in 2019 by an independent human resources company to examine and consider the root causes. Follow-up actions have included dignity and respect training for the Doolin unit, the facilitation of group and one-to-one sessions with the Irish Coast Guard, IRCG, management and the Doolin unit members. An intensive support package was also put in place with coastal unit sector managers to monitor and assist in supervising the situation. The Coast Guard also very much acknowledges and recognises the strenuous efforts and leadership displayed by many members of the Doolin unit, its management and other stakeholders to address these difficulties. I assure members that the Coast Guard is committed to supporting the 900 volunteers who helped to provide the important life-saving service of the IRCG and ongoing consultation with the volunteers is key.
The Coast Guard volunteers have for some time had a representative body called the Coastal Unit Advisory Group, which represents Irish Coast Guard volunteers and provides advice and input to the Coast Guard under agreed terms of reference between management and volunteers. I intend to meet with the Coastal Unit Advisory Group this week. I am also open to meeting other volunteers.
In 2018, the Coast Guard completed a review of the volunteer code of conduct. This review was conducted with independent, expert input from a human resource consultancy in order to ensure that Coast Guard processes and procedures were fair and fit for purpose for an organisation of its type. The review also involved a consultation process with the volunteers which was managed by the Coastal Unit Advisory Group. That group has also been reviewed with a refreshed structure and terms of reference. My key focus is to ensure we have a process that works and that the concerns of the volunteers are heard and addressed at the highest level.
I thank the Minister of State. That is as good a response as Senator Conway, Senator Garvey, who is in the Chair and whom I know is committed to addressing this issue, and I could have got. On the Minister of State's commitment regarding the appointment of an independent arbitrator, since it is not just a question of the issues at the station and since it involves the wider issue in the context of the Coast Guard, I ask her to consider appointing as mediator Mr. Kieran Mulvey, who has shown a phenomenal capacity to resolve many disputes over the years, including, most recently, a dispute concerning staff in the Irish Aviation Authority. I ask the Minister of State and her Department to consider Mr. Mulvey's name in this regard. I do not know whether he would be available. I have not spoken to him on this occasion so it would be a bolt from the blue for him. The development on mediation is welcome. The Acting Chairman, Senator Conway and I certainly welcome it.
I concur that Mr. Mulvey is certainly a name that one would hope would attract a lot of support and agreement. Regardless of the mediator appointed, I very much welcome the Minister of State's commitment to appoint one. The mediator has to be independent of the Coast Guard because the representative organisation operates under the auspices of the Coast Guard and all the HR staff hired to deal with this were paid for by the Coast Guard. This matter needs to be addressed by the Department. The Coast Guard must not have anything to do with it because its role has been the nub of why a resolution has not been found to date. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the arrangement will be independent of the Coast Guard in the first instance. Second, she might give us a timeline as to when she hopes to meet her officials and make an announcement on the appointment of a mediator.
It is important to acknowledge that the units continue to actively recruit members from within their communities. They are very keen to enrol volunteers. Once enrolled, volunteers enter a training programme to assist their communities with the search-and-rescue response. In the past two years, there has been no exception. Despite the challenge of Covid, units have been able to enrol new members and advance existing team members in key training requirements.
The number of volunteer grievance cases remains low. They represent less than 0.5% of the total volunteer cadre. Given the number of volunteers, amounting to over 900 in total, the percentage is very low by comparison with that in similar organisations. I assure the Senators that it is my priority, and that of the Coast Guard and Department, to ensure Doolin Coast Guard unit will be returned to operational readiness as quickly as practicable. A plan is being put in place to ensure this. There is a role for an independent person or mediator to be appointed to the Doolin unit to resolve the difficulties. I intend to progress that as a matter of priority. I will also be continuing to engage with volunteers.
As a north Clare woman, I have been inundated with calls on this matter. The Minister of State understands the enormity of the issue. I acknowledge completely that she, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and their Department have offered support at every level. There was no shortage of funding for training or mediation. It has not worked to date, unfortunately. This is a serious conflict-resolution issue in respect of which we need to bring in experts on conflict resolution. We have to find a way. The individuals concerned are adults. We need to get adults to start adulting in order that we can move forward and get this Coast Guard unit back up and running.