I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. In 1981, I developed a family-owned boat building business on a greenfield site in Valentia, County Kerry. At that time it was one of the main employers on the island. We employed up to 20 people full time and a number part time.
In 1989, I wrote to the then Secretary of the Department, Mr. Fionán Ó Muircheartaigh, regarding matters pertaining to the boat yard business and in particular my concerns with the impending Single Market which was coming into play in 1992. I wished to draw the attention of the Secretary to means of funding developments for this neglected industry. In 1991 the Secretary invited me to attend a meeting in Dublin at his offices to discuss these issues. He concluded by assuring me of the Department's full assistance in whatever way that could be afforded.
In 1992 I had successfully built a number of boats under the European surveillance package for the Department of the Marine. It was at the launching of one of those boats by the then Minister for the Marine, Deputy Michael Woods, that I discussed with the then Minister my plans for further developing the business. At that stage the Minister was very interested in my development plan and asked in what way the Department could assist me in completing my application for grant aid to the European Commission under Regulation 4028/86. I advised the Minister that I would need the expertise of a number of key personnel within the Department to guide me through the Brussels bureaucracy. I got that from both the Secretary and the Minister.
In 1992 we developed the plan which was to provide a comprehensive fishing boat service and repair facility to cater for the needs of the aging Irish fleet and the long-haul European fleet as well. The Department assisted me in every way to develop this plan. We developed the plan and brought it to fruition. I then brought it to the Minister in his Dáil office for appraisal. On foot of that the plan was verified, certified and supported under Regulation 4028/86 and submitted to Brussels. Under Regulation 4028/86 it is a prerequisite that before any application goes to Europe for approval, State funding must be in place. In October 1992 the plan went to Brussels. In December 1992 I was requested to attend in Brussels accompanied by an official from the Department of the Marine to brief the various DGs in Europe on the concept, the rationale and the thinking behind the project. The official concerned acknowledged and confirmed the Department's support for the project. In April 1993 representatives of the Department attended the regular fisheries structures committee meeting in Brussels at which the project was approved under Commission Decision Port/Irl/1/93. On 26 April 1993 the Department and my company, Valentia Marine Limited, were formally advised by registered mail of the Commission's approval for the project under Regulation 4028/86. The funding arrangements for the project were as follows: grant aid from the Commission of IR£1,056,850, committed member state funding of IR£565,185, with the beneficiary paying a further IR£565,185. At this stage the Commission decision was legally binding on all those to whom it was addressed. In summary, I had approval in the form of a Commission decision for grant aid totalling IR£1,056,850 for development of the boatyard. However, this was linked to the member state contribution, as is the case with all European Commission funding. I cannot stress enough the importance of this requirement.
On receipt of official notification of project approval, I immediately set about implementation of the plan by recruiting extra staff and firming up the arrangements with potential service providers in the area of electronics and so on. I then prepared the site for commencement of the project. I had at that stage expended approximately IR£250,000, which amount was certified by an engineer from the Department. The information can be made available to the committee on request.
There were a number of conditions attached to the Commission decision, including that the project be commenced within one year of approval and completed within two years of commencement. I had, therefore, to go into first gear and waste no time in commencing the project. I met my bank to arrange bridging finance for it. On examination of the Commission decision, the bank made the following observations: the funding from the European Union could be drawn down in two stages. This did not present a problem. However, there was no indication of a draw-down sequence in regard to departmental funding. It was suggested, therefore, that I obtain a letter clarifying and identifying the Department's draw-down sequence. I then requested a letter from and a meeting with it.
During a later meeting with the Department the personnel present appeared to be of a different mind on the matter. One official said he would consider the matter and defer to me, while the other became somewhat agitated and advised me in no uncertain terms that the Department was under no obligation to pay any grant towards the project and that a letter would issue to me within a short time. I received the letter on 23 September 1993 advising me that it was a matter for me to provide the member state funding and that the Department had no mechanism or scheme in place or obligation to pay a grant towards the project. There then ensued a series of correspondence with the Department, all of which came to nothing. I was faced with a really big problem in that by that stage I had taken on three new personnel and owed the bank in the region of IR£300,000. I requested many meetings with the Department which were not granted.
It was at this stage that I took legal advice on the options open to me. Based on this advice, I applied for and was granted a judicial review in 1995. My case was eventually heard in the High Court in 1997. The outcome, after four days, was a settlement initiated by the Department and entered into in good faith by me. It provided for two options: (a) acceptance of a sum of IR£135,000 in full satisfaction as damages or (b) that the sum of IR£135,000 form the national aid element in the event of the original project, with its modified funding arrangements, being submitted to the Commission for approval. I opted for option (b).
The Department supported the modification option as per the court settlement and confirmed the project's viability. It submitted the project by letter to the Commission for approval on 26 February 1998. In response, the Commission requested details of the national scheme under which the original project had been approved and asked if the scheme had been approved by the Commission. The Department's response was that it had no national scheme of grants in place to assist projects such as mine. I again found myself in a dilemma when the Department acknowledged to the Commission that it did not have a national scheme or programme under which it could grant-aid the project.
During a meeting with the Taoiseach arranged by my local representative, Deputy Healy-Rae, the Taoiseach indicated his concerns to me. Thereafter, following considerable deliberations, he commissioned international consultants, INDECON, to examine the matter and report back to him. The report recommended that the case be returned to the High Court or that it be brought to the attention of the Ombudsman for speedy resolution. It was also critical of the Department's lack of consistency and the manner in which it dealt with the application admininstratively.
On 17 May 2001 I submitted a formal complaint to the Ombudsman. In September 2002 he completed his report on the matter. The report stated that, on the basis of the evidence examined by him, he considered that the manner in which the Department had processed the original application may have been flawed based on undesirable administrative practices and was contrary to fair and sound administration. It further stated that, while the Department had been directly involved in the preparation of the application, it appeared to him that it did not meet the requirements as set out in Regulation 4028/86. The Department did not have the required programme in place and could not accept responsibility for the provision of the member state funding. This eventually led to the court settlement. The Ombudsman expressed his concern that the Department might not be in a position to fulfil its part of the court settlement in that conditions attaching to the Commission decision had not been met by it. The report concluded that, following a preliminary examination, it appeared the Department's actions might fall within the heads of maladministration and that I had been adversely affected by these actions. The Ombudsman requested that the Department review its handling of the case and report back to him on what steps it proposed to take.
I have lost my business as a result. I have a young family and no means of providing for them. I have five young sons. The Department's failure to acknowledge its obligations and commitments to me and the European Commission has left me without a business or a means of providing for my young family. I have incurred enormous debts which I may not be able to pay. If I am to do so, the Department needs to compensate me adequately.