Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan gets sticky plaster legisation for MCIB problems passed in the Dáil despite resounding criticism from opposition
The decision by the Dáil to pass the Marine Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill has been called a sticky plaster on a gaping wound.
Speaking on Donegal based radio station, Highland Radio, International Maritime Lawyer, Michael Kingston and Sinn Féin Deputy and Fisheries Spokesperson, Padraig MacLochlainn criticised the Department of Transport for not carrying out a full review and overhaul of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) despite several Reports into the body and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruling in July 2020.
Mr Kingston has accused the Dept of Transport of burying an official report into the MCIB which was carried out by barrister Roisin Lacey in 2010. A report he says could have saved lives. He has called on the Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan TD, to publish the report in full and has reported the incident to An Garda Síochana.
On yesterday’s vote Mr Kingston said it was a “A patch up of the current system” but the Minister for Transport has promised news legislation regarding the MCIB.
He asked, “Why can’t we put the legislation in place that we have in template form that was provided in in 2010 by the Roisin Lacey Report?
“They’re just using this as as an exercise to continue the same system, and then promising a review that will never happen. It’s an outrageous democratic deficit and people need to be held accountable.”
He said the templates were there from the UK after they introduced an independent marine investigation board, something which this new piece of legislation has not resolved.
Sinn Féin’s Padraig MacLochlainn and Darren O’Rourke, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, along with Independent TD’s Michael Collins and Mattie McGrath argued their case in the Dáil yesterday, at the fifth stage of the Bill, for a full review of the MCIB.
Sinn Féin said that they were disappointed their amendments were ruled ‘out of order’ and that the Minister for Transport himself had not proposed similar amendments they believed would bring about a positive change in the make-up of the MCIB.
Sinn Féin TD, Darren O’Rourke said, “There is a long and sorry history of missed opportunities, whether that be in the 1998 Report, the 2010 Roisin Lacey Report, or the more recent 2020 Clinch Report. We have the Roisin Lacey Report. It explains very clearly what needed to be done, what needs to be done. Instead, the State left itself in the position where it defended the indefensible at a European Court and as expected, failed.
“We have deep concerns in relation to the Bill and the fact that it doesn’t go further. As I had said at Committee stage, we are very concerned. We hear the commitments from the Minister that he will publish the Clinch Report at the end of Q1. There’s a big question over that subject to the approval by the AG (Attorney General).
“The further commitment to deliver the substantive piece of legislation that across the political spectrum there have been calls for. Again, a huge question mark over that, subject to approval by cabinet.
“There is a clear weakness within marine casualty investigation in Ireland and this was the piece of legislation that could have resolved it. We had eighteen-months to get it right. We haven’t got it right and you haven’t taken the opportunity to give cast iron guarantees in this piece of legislation, that within a given timeframe that you would bring forward and deliver the necessary reforms and, in that context, we cannot support this Bill.”
Independent TD, Mattie McGrath called it a “a whitewash of the highest order” saying that it was a “half-baked, cobbled together attempt by officials in the Department of Transport who want to keep this situation under wraps.”
He said that ever since the Whiddy Island disaster in 1979, where 50 people lost their lives, the Irish government has been ignoring the serious issues in the MCIB.
One of the casualties of the Whiddy Island disaster was Michael Kingston’s father. Mr Kingston has spent his life working to ensure that maritime disasters would be properly investigated, and that the lessons learned would be applied to safety.
Catherine Murphy TD said, “We do regulation poorly. We do it in a fragmented and disjointed way. We think we save money by not having good regulatory organisations in place. In fact, we end up paying a price in the end. In this case, it may well be seafarers who end up paying the price.”
Deputy Padraig MacLochlainn told the Dáil, “The catalogue of repeated failures is disturbing. The Whiddy Island disaster in 1979 should have focused minds.”
Deputy MacLochliann pointed to string of missed opportunities where the Department could have fixed the major failures within the MCIB. The number of issues and the graveness of the problems have led Mr Kingston to reporting them to the Gardaí.
He said, “It is a serious matter that the Róisín Lacey report of 2010 was revealed through a whistleblower when it should have been published by the Minister’s Department long ago. That recommended a multinodal accident investigation office to cover air, marine and rail, like the Swedish model. It was not acted upon. That has led to a complaint being sent to An Garda Síochána by Michael Kingston. This could not be more serious. The complaint alleges that these failures have led unnecessarily to lives being lost at sea.
“The Minister is asking people to take a leap of faith but people have lost faith in how the Department of Transport has handled this over the years. It could not be more serious. We will oppose this Bill. We see it as a missed opportunity by the Minister to get this right with many people offering in good faith to assist.”
Cork Independent TD, Michael Collins also descibed the Bill as “half-baked” and described the night of the Whiddy Island disaster when he was 11 years old. He also called on the government to apologise to Michael Kingston and the families of the Whiddy Islands Disaster for the botched investigation carried out in the aftermath, and the families not receiving the justice they deserved. He said that that government should work with Michael Kingston to help improve legislation in relation to marine safety.
Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan defended the incompetence of his Department and the new Bill saying that it was a necessary stopgap until they could address a whole new area of legislation that would lead to an independent casualty investigation body.
He told the Dáil, “It is important tonight that we remember all the families of those who died in the Whiddy Island disaster, which I remember, and in every disaster since when people have lost their lives at sea. It is such an acute loss that never fades or goes away. Our thoughts must be centred on those families. We must serve them by ensuring that we learn lessons from disasters and avoid the same terrible fate befalling other families.
I listened to what the Deputies said and to the extensive debate we had on Second Stage, on Committee Stage and at various meetings during the lengthy pre-legislative scrutiny by the Department. I have heard and listened with respect to other Deputies and their views.
“I want to get across my one view as we conclude and, I hope, pass the Bill. While we all make mistakes in public life and in public service, my experience has been that officials and board members, the vast majority of people I deal with on a daily basis, in this area and in others, are people who are motivated by the very best of intentions and are independent rather than partisan in their approach. They put civility into public service. They are professional, competent and committed, and attempt to do their duty which is to care for the public good. That has been my experience. There may be cases in which we fail in that high standard but that is what I see in the Department and on the board for which I have responsibility. I have to stand up for them because I believe it is important that that perspective is also heard.
“In conversations with my officials, they will know this is true, we are looking at all options. As we said at various stages right the way through this that our systems are not perfect – far from it. They are in need of reform, modernising and improvement. We acknowledge and agree with that and I am committed, during the lifetime of this Government, to deliver the sort of marine casualty investigation unit that we would all prefer to see, that is, a unit that is independent and physically located outside. We will look at perhaps locating it with our air and rail investigation units, so that they can pull together and get some of the benefits of such a co-ordinated approach.
“However, I am conscious that to fully step in that direction, to completely provide the full suite of legislation that we want or need in order to get the most perfect system, brings with it one risk that we cannot accept. That is that in the time period between the start and finish of such an important legislative organisational process, we risk having a board that would not be able to carry out its functions. We would leave ourselves and our public exposed. That is what the Bill is about. It would quickly ensure that we have a functioning board under the existing system. We accept the European court judgment and recognise that it has required us to act very quickly and to give us the capability to have a larger board so that it is fully capable of doing the important public work. That is what the Bill attempts to do. It does not seek to address all the valid concerns that I listened to – I am perfectly up-front and honest about that – because I want to be quick. I want to get these people in place as soon as possible. That is why I call on everyone in the House to support the Bill, because failing to be quick risks leaving us exposed.
“We will, subject to the legal advice from the Attorney General, publish the Clinch report. We will go to Government with proposals for a new and better organised structure, which we expect and have committed to have by the end of the year. I look forward to that debate and bringing it through the legislative process, but tonight we need to pass this Bill because we are at risk. That is the very essence of this whole area. It is about trying to minimise and reduce risk and learning lessons from the past.”
The Bill was eventually passed Yes 77 and No 57 even though the only Government representative present during the Dáil debate itself was Eamon Ryan himself. The Bill will now be sent to the Seanad.
by Oliver McBride