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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 21 Nov 1995

Vol. 458 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Sea Rescue Service.

I take it Deputy Browne is sharing his time with Deputy Hugh Byrne who has given me notice of a similar matter? Five minutes are available for the two Deputies concerned.

(Wexford): I am happy to share my time with Deputy Byrne. I thank you for allowing me raise this matter on the Adjournment.

The terrible tragedy which occurred at Howth last week and the ongoing search for the missing boat in Donegal has once again opened up the debate on our sea rescue services, or the lack of them, around our coastline, particularly on the east coast. The tragic death of one of the trawlermen, Tim Currid, has shocked the community of Wexford, where he lived, and I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to his wife and family and to all the many fishermen who worked with him for many years.

Talking to fishermen over the past few days I found they are angry because they feel this death should not have happened. They are angry about the lack of rescue and search facilities. Indeed, in one of last Friday morning's newspapers, the secretary of the Howth Lifeboat Service, Rupert Jeffares, is quoted as saying he had no doubt that if a helicopter with night flying capabilities were available at Baldonnel, the four trawlermen would have been off the wrecked trawler within 30 minutes. When a person in such a responsible position makes a statement like that we must all listen and be prepared to act. That is one of the reasons so many fishermen are angry at present.

Why must we wait for people to die before we consider taking action to deal with the lack of adequate search and rescue services for fishermen and others using our seas, rivers and waterways? The Minister has ordered a review and I welcome that but can we afford to wait for the findings and recommendations of this review group when one considers how long it usually takes for governments to act upon such reviews? Perhaps the Minister might clarify whether he has put a time limit on the review. Does he expect a quick response and will he be putting an action plan into operation immediately?

We cannot wait any longer for action. No more lives must be lost and no more families devastated by the loss of loved ones because we do not have a helicopter with night flying capabilities on the east coast. It is a national scandal that such a situation exists on a sea corridor which has two major ports, Dún Laoghaire and Rosslare, carrying a huge volume of shipping and thousands of passengers every day in addition to the hundreds of people engaged in sea fishing.

I call on the Minister to consider expanding the search and rescue services on the east coast immediately and to put in place a proper helicopter service capable of operating on a 24 hour basis. We do not need a review to do that. Action must be taken immediately and I call on the Minister to provide the appropriate funding for this service.

Far too often I have sympathised with widows, consoled parents and comforted children of fishermen and seafarers. I did so again last Saturday morning when Timmy Currid, who lost his life at Howth, was laid to rest. His family and many friends were devastated. There was anger among his friends who felt that if a helicopter with night flying equipment were available on the east coast, Timmy might still be alive. Timmy was a married man with four children and, like many other fishermen, he had a mortgage on his new house. His wife, Carmel, must now come to grips with this terrible tragedy and get on with her life. She will do that; she is a strong woman and she has promised to dedicate herself to a campaign for improved life saving services to reduce the risk for other fishermen. This generous woman wishes to meet the Minister in the immediate future and I am sure he will agree to that.

It is well known that Timmy Currid had a safe pair of hands. His every move was measured and calculated. He and his crewmen were taking the best option when the accident occurred — they were heading for Howth Harbour. Their Mayday was received and reacted to promptly. A helicopter was generously sent from Wales and arrived approximately one hour later. One hour is a long time to spend in the sea when there is a ferocious storm. Helicopters were available at Baldonnel, and private helicopters are based in and around Dublin city, but they were all grounded because they do not have night flying equipment.

We should hang our heads in shame. We must give a commitment to those who use the sea. I ask the Minister for a minimum of one helicopter with night flying equipment to be provided urgently on the east coast.

I wish to preface my response by sympathising with the families of the fishermen lost in the recent tragedy in Howth and those still missing from the fishing vessel Carrickatine off Donegal.

I am sure this House will wish to mark with respect and appreciation the unstinting contribution of all persons, communities and authorities involved in these two sad incidents. In particular, the ready response by colleagues and friends of the crew of the Carrickatine reflects the close ties in any fishing community faced with such a tragedy.

Following every search and rescue operation an internal review into the actual operation is carried out with the intention of identifying any areas where improvements may be achieved in equipment, deployment, personnel, response times and procedures. The two recent incidents will be treated accordingly.

I have deliberately refrained from making any wild statements or trying to play politics in dealing with this sad occurrence. Unfortunately, some of the remarks that have been passed here this evening are unwarranted and will be very much resented by a group of people in the Irish marine emergency service who have spent the past five or six days working around the clock. Without any fear of contradiction I can say that the level of service we have received from these people is remarkable. Wild statements were made this evening that helicopters were idle on the ground which, had they had night flying equipment, could have saved lives without waiting to hear the full circumstances. It is wrong to come in here and criticise those involved in this service. They are professional people and I respectfully suggest that the Deputies should stop playing politics.

I did not criticise those people. Families are grieving.

They are only trying to get lines in newspapers. I would remind the Deputies that their party was in Government for eight years and did nothing about this service.

(Wexford): The Minister is losing the run of himself.

I have been involved in search and rescue all my life.

Let us hear the Minister without interruption.

I wish to place on the record that in co-ordinating marine emergency response, the Irish marine emergency service of my Department draws on the many resources which are dedicated to marine emergency purposes on a 24 hour basis, including the Co-Ordination Marine Radio and Communications Network, the IMES Sikorsky helicopter based in Shannon, the Air Corps Dauphin based at Finner, County Donegal, the 50 coast and cliff rescue service units, the many purpose built lifeboats operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the six units of the Community Inshore Rescue Service. Each of these declared resources has signed agreements with IMES for operation, standards and response and agree that their facilities can be co-ordinated by IMES; at times one and at others a combination of all are used, as is considered necessary. Ireland has responsibility under international maritime conventions for a search and rescue region that extends to 200 miles off the west coast, 30 miles off the south coast and divides the Irish Sea in half.

The statement that we have to wait for Britain to supply us with a helicopter service is unfounded. There is a bilateral agreement under which Ireland will facilitate Britain when requested to do so. From memory, the statistics for 1994 recently made available to me show that under this agreement facilities were made available to Britain on over 100 occasions.

There is no argument about that.

It is not a question of where the helicopter is located but of flying time. At 65 miles, Rosslare is the same distance from Dublin and Wales. The same flying time would be involved——

I am talking about the east coast, not Rosslare.

Exactly. If a helicopter was based in Baldonnel it would have to travel the 65 miles to Rosslare in the same way that a helicopter based in Wales would have to travel the 65 miles to Dublin.

The Minister has lost it. It is well known that a helicopter based on the east coast would provide the required service.

Since when did the Deputy become an expert in this area?

I live beside the sea.

The Deputy has made his point.

Would the Deputy not wait and see what the experts have to say before trying to score political points?

This issue is above politics.

The Deputy was heard with the utmost courtesy. He should extend the same to the Minister.

In accordance with international co-operation between states a state may call upon the resources of another to assist in any search and rescue operation as in the recent Howth incident when RAF Valley in Wales, which is 65 miles from Dublin, deployed a helicopter to the scene to assist in the rescue operation. This was the closest 24 hour helicopter service available at the time.

The existing contract for the provision of a medium range search and rescue helicopter service based at Shannon was placed with Irish Helicopters Limited in June 1991 following Government approval. This contract runs until the end of 1996 and performance to date has lived up to expectations.

Where was it on Thursday night?

This shows how ignorant the Deputy is when it comes to the facts.

The Minister is tetchy.

This helicopter is based at Shannon which is more than 65 miles from Dublin. Up to the end of October 1995, the contracted helicopter service carried out 571 missions and saved 377 lives. To ensure that we continue to deploy our search and rescue resources to the highest international standards I have asked my Department to address the issue of the adequacy or otherwise of coverage of the east coast in the context of the system to be put in place after the expiry of this contract. If this review indicates that a long-term change is necessary I will ensure that the necessary steps are taken so that the safety of our seafarers is fully protected.

The Government decided in 1991 that the option of a medium range search and rescue helicopter service being provided by the Air Corps after 1996 should be examined and costed. That option is being evaluated.

The Air Corps has a fleet of five Dauphin helicopters, two of which are designed to operate with the Naval Service vessel le Eithne. These are used for a number of tasks, including the provision of a 24 hour, 365 day, search and rescue service based at Finner Camp, County Donegal, and have provided a satisfactory service. In addition, should the need arise when a Dauphin helicopter is on fishery patrol with the Naval Service vessel le Eithne, it is made available for search and rescue.

Over the past two and a half years each of the Dauphin helicopters has undergone a major overhaul by the manufacturers in France. This, in effect, reduced the number of helicopters available to four. The final helicopter returned to Ireland on Saturday last having completed its overhaul.

Now that the five Dauphin helicopters are again available to the Air Corps I have asked for an immediate report on the feasibility and consequences of a 24 hour, 365 day, search and rescue service being provided by a Dauphin helicopter based at Baldonnel. This would be in addition to the service provided from Finner Camp and the helicopter on board the le Eithne, and would be an interim measure pending the outcome of the more general review I have mentioned. There are many countries in Europe which would look with envy at what Ireland has provided to its maritime users in search and rescue response. This can be seen from the facts I have given.

While internationally marine safety is constantly under review Ireland's maritime safety policy is a process where we plan to prevent, predict and pre-empt. We also plan for successful intervention in and management of a casualty and its consequences. We are aware that maritime safety policy must constantly evolve and roll forward. That is the reason I have directed that the possibility of providing a Dauphin helicopter at Baldonnel be investigated and that the issue of east coast coverage be assessed in the longer term.

Deputy Jimmy Leonard was selected by me to raise a matter on the Adjournment. However, the Deputy subsequently withdrew his request.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 November 1995.