I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to have been given this opportunity the move Second Stage of the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2019. Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire. I thank the Minister for his courtesy and the Government for not opposing this Bill. When Ms Anne-Marie O'Brien, who is in the Visitors Gallery with her dad, started to raise issues, right after the terrible accident, which was almost ten years ago, the Minister travelled to her home in Tipperary to meet her and myself. He also received a deputation in Dublin and he listened and was very helpful and courteous to her. I want to say hello to the many people watching at home, including young Anna, Anne-Marie's daughter who is only ten years of age and who is remembering her late uncle, and the Esmonde family members. It is a very traumatic case and it is a ten-year fight for justice. This is a very important milestone on that road and this is important legislation.
I thank the Deputies who are in attendance, including Deputy Cahill, who is my constituency colleague. On Anne-Marie's behalf, I thank Deputies for engaging with her, especially Deputies Ferris and Cahill and other Deputies, two of whom who are gone, namely, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, who were very helpful. I also thank David Mullins in my own office and anyone else who has helped us.
Many people have gone home because Storm Lorenzo. I hope everybody at sea, whether on a ferry or otherwise, gets home safely. There are many songs, including from the Clancy Brothers, about bringing people home safely. It is a rough evening for people who have to be at sea or on the road. It is poignant this debate is happening this evening unlike the day this terrible tragedy unfolded. It was a beautiful late spring-early summer day. The waters were still as the water sa ghloine sin, as the water in that glass.
The aim of the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2019 is to revise the requirements for composition of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board and to provide for related matters. When the Bill was introduced I made it clear that while the Bill itself is short and technical, it is of considerable emotional importance to the O'Brien and the Esmonde families and to several other family members left behind. I salute the courage and determination of Anne-Marie in pushing for the introduction of this Bill, which is not for selfish reasons. Rather, it is very selfless. She knows, as does the Esmonde family, their loved ones will not be coming back but she is concerned about future accidents, incidents and loved ones lost. One thinks of the three young girls her brother left behind, Shannon, Sophie and Samantha, and Pat Esmonde's daughter, Shannon. They were young children. By a small quirk of fate, they both lived either side of me - one three miles in one direction and the other two and a half miles in the other direction. I did not know them even though they were living there. These children were left without ever being able to see their father again. I salute Anne-Marie on the totally selfless work she has done in that area.
It is for other people's benefit.
This Bill seeks to remedy those circumstances where there is no legal obligation on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport or his or her agents to ensure that members of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board have maritime or marine accident experience. I am not aiming this at the Minister, Deputy Ross, because I believe he has engaged in the issue and is interested in changing it. The Bill refers to the Minister of the day, whoever he or she might be.
If this Bill is accepted and passed, it will strengthen the onus on the Minister and his or her agents to ensure that qualified and suitable candidates are selected for membership of the board or elected to it, and that maritime experience should be a prerequisite. One would think that we should not have to look for this in legislation, but maritime experience has to be a prerequisite. It is a fair and reasonable requirement given the gravity of the cases that may need to be investigated.
We are aware that the European Commission has referred Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to uphold EU law on impartial investigations of marine incidents. There are many such incidents going back 40 blian ó shin, one such being the Whiddy Island disaster. Reporting on the issue, Lorna Siggins, in The Irish Times noted that:
The EU says that it has a “number of concerns” about the independence of members of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB), the State’s lead investigating body for serious incidents at sea. The presence of the Department of Transport’s secretary general or nominee, and the Marine Survey Office’s chief surveyor on the five-person board could represent a conflict to interest, according to the European Commission.
We do not have any personal gripe with those persons in their professional capacity but the Minister knows where we are coming from and what we need in this regard. This is what the European Commission has said about it. The Irish Times article also reported that the European Commission had indicated that the board "lacks the necessary independence" from the Department and the Marine Survey Office. I have to highlight yet again that this stands in stark contrast to the equivalent board in the United Kingdom where marine casualty investigation experience is a definite prerequisite and a requirement.
I salute former Captain Neil Forde, retired, who is now a contract investigator. He lost his dad in the Whiddy Island disaster 40 years ago and those families are still waiting for answers. I thank Captain Forde for all of his help on the investigation. He has been a mine of information for us.
This jurisdiction must also make maritime or marine accident experience a prerequisite for becoming a member of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board to protect the integrity of the process and ensure that no stone is left unturned for the loved ones left behind in cases involving marine accidents with fatalities. A number of people have contacted us, including Anne-Marie O'Brien. I also salute the Barry family from Cappaghwhite who are my neighbours. Michael Barry and his son, who have since died, were at sea on the day John O'Brien and Patrick Esmonde's boat was torpedoed and the resulting wave almost upended their boat. They came forward as witnesses. Both have since gone to their eternal reward. They were never properly engaged with by An Garda Síochána, not to mention the Marine Casualty Investigation Board.
On a broader note, I hope the Bill will also act as a timely reminder that boards of this kind need to avoid being filled with people who may be good and decent but who are essentially ministerial appointees in the worst sense of that word. By this I mean that they do not have the necessary experience. This scenario must be specifically avoided in areas like marine casualty investigation and the most sensitive of issues, the death of a loved one in such tragic and traumatic circumstances. Standards should apply in and sensitivity must be shown. One would take it for granted that appointees would be the highest qualified people with the relevant experience.
The Public Appointments Service, PAS, which acts as the centralised provider of recruitment, assessment and selection services, also aims to provide an open, efficient and effective gateway and process to identify top quality people for consideration by Ministers for appointment to State boards. For the PAS, there are a number of typical competencies that may be deemed relevant to a position on a State board. These competencies range across the spectrum and include an individual having an analytical strategic perspective, which is an ability to critically analyse information to identify the most relevant and critical issues. In the context of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, how is this competency to be met if the Minister is able to appoint a people with no relevant maritime investigation experience? I plead with the Minister to take these matters into account and raise them at Cabinet and in government. Much has been made of the Public Appointments Service and its independence in making appointments. When I was involved in the communications and fisheries portfolio of the former communications committee under the then Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I was tasked with the job of interviewing for inland fisheries inspectors. Independence had to be shown and if we had to appoint three people, we appointed the best people with the best qualifications. Like anybody who goes for an interview, we have to pass on our merits. Deputies Cahill, Browne, Ferris, the Acting Chairman, Deputy O'Rourke, and I are going for a big interview soon where the people will interview us. We have to pass on merit and people will give us uimhir a haon at the ballot box, or they could put two ones beside our name, which would leave us in big trouble. We will have to put our best foot forward and be on our best behaviour, and rightly so. That is democracy at work. The democratic systems set up since the foundation of the State have failed us in so many ways. We need to make a change and I appeal to the Minister and his officials, some of whom are in the Chamber, to grasp that. They should deal with the issue on Committee Stage for reasons of safety, humanity and dignity when further accidents occur and more lives are lost. Accidents can and do happen - we cannot avoid them - but this legislation should give families confidence that a proper and meaningful investigation will take place. It is very important.
I was wrong with a name I gave earlier. Michael Kingston is a global maritime lawyer who lost his dad, Tim, 40 years ago in the Whiddy Island disaster. Michael Kingston has been invaluable to us and to Anne-Marie O'Brien and the Esmonde family. Mr. Kingston has advised governments all over Europe and the world, but for some reason the Department will not engage with him. What is wrong? Is it the case that the prophet is never recognised in his own village? We have people here who are willing and able, have expertise and want to help in the spirit of the Irish meitheal. They want to be good citizens and give support and solace to Anne-Marie O'Brien, her mum and dad and for little Anna at home. I thank the Minister for visiting the family, when he empathised and sympathised with them, and also met with them in the House. Now, however, is the time for action. I am delighted with the support I am expecting to get this evening. It is all positive.
People realise that there is no ulterior motive with this legislation, which seeks to make a bad situation good. It is about trying to get the right people on the board of marine investigation so that when they go to visit a site, they will have all the necessary experience. What is the point in me, for example, going up to the Bog of Allen to investigate an incident on the bog? I would be lost in the bog like being lost in the fog. I would not have a clue. We need to have people with experience. As far as water is concerned, I almost drowned when I was a boy and I am now nervous in the bath. I would not even stand near a river, not to mind investigate something in one. We need qualified people who have the proven experience who will be able to give their expertise to ensure proper investigation of such incidents. I hope the investigation into the case I have raised will be reopened. I also hope we will be able to sleep in our beds, and Anne-Marie can sleep in her bed, when this legislation is enacted in the knowledge that one good thing has been done to deal with future accidents.
While we are not dealing with An Garda Síochána today, there was no investigation of this case by the Dungarvan Garda. It was an unbelievable cover-up, a total cover-up. The fishing boat was upended in a hit-and-run incident. If something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. There were eyewitnesses. Whale watchers on Helvick Pier saw what happened. I wrote to the coroner a couple of times. I have never in my 12 years in this House - I got a phone call from a coroner telling me to back off from this and keep away from it because those boys had copious amounts of alcohol drunk. They had not. The autopsies proved they had drunk perhaps two or three cans at most. There was a cover-up of enormous proportions. This is not the only cover-up in Dungarvan Garda station but we are not dealing with that in this legislation. We will deal with it elsewhere. I am awaiting a meeting with Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn.
We can make meaningful change with this legislation. Deputy Ferris, who will contribute shortly, knows more about maritime issues than I will ever learn, as do other Members. I am from an inland county, as is Deputy Cahill. I appeal to the goodwill of the House and the goodwill of the Minister and his Department to accept this legislation.
It is not a perfect Bill, but it is as good as we can manage. I thank the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser, OPLA, which was a great help with the Bill. I have had other Private Members' Bills that were not fit for purpose when it came to moving them, but the OPLA has helped me enormously. I do not have any staff names, but I met them this morning and thanked them because we have limited resources as Oireachtas Members. We are all here to do our best in this House and in politics.
I appeal to the Minister and his officials to take this Bill on board. I hope to have many interactions on this and a fruitful outcome so that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done, which is important. The Minister wrote in the media for decades and campaigned for reform. This legislation is his chance. I will support him all the way, as will others, in trying to make a significant difference in this situation and getting rid of quangos. He railed against quangos for decades, and this board is certainly a quango. There are people on it who do not understand what they are meant to be dealing with. It is a pitiful situation. I believe the Minister will act in good faith. He has done so so far. I praise the bridges that I go over. That is how I operate, and I hope we will proceed in an amenable and constructive fashion. I look forward to engaging with the Minister.