Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 10 Jul 1990

Vol. 401 No. 4

Private Notice Questions. - Ballycotton (Cork) Drownings.

I have had a number of Private Notice Questions submitted to me and I will be calling the Deputies in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office. I will deal first with the questions addressed to the Minister for the Marine.

asked the Minister for the Marine the preliminary reports which have been received in relation to the Ballycotton tragedy which resulted in the loss of life of four fishery board officers from the South-Western Fishery Board and if he is in a position to respond to claims that the boat was unfit for use and lacked emergency and life-saving equipment.

asked the Minister for the Marine if he will outline the information available to him on the circumstances in which four fishery protection officers were drowned off Ballycotton, County Cork, on Saturday last; if he has satisfied himself that the vessel being used was suitable and that the safety equipment aboard was adequate; the investigation which is planned into the tragedy; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for the Marine if he will outline the nature and scope of the investigation which is taking place into the drowning of the four fishery protection officers off Cork on Saturday last; and if he will make a statement on the apparent delay in getting the rescue operation under way.

I propose to take these three questions together. I am taking this opportunity to express in public, as I have done in private, my sympathy and the sympathy of the House with the families of the four officers who so tragically lost their lives last Saturday.

Yesterday I appointed Captain William A. Kirwan, marine surveyor in my Department, as inspector to report to me as soon as possible on the circumstances of this tragic loss and on the steps to be taken to prevent a recurrence. Captain Kirwan, as a duly appointed inspector under the Merchant Shipping Acts, has full powers of entry and inspection, may summon witnesses, may require and enforce the production of documents and may administer oaths. I am confident that he has full statutory authority and the expertise to carry out this inquiry fully and thoroughly.

The Deputies will appreciate that I would not wish to prejudge Captain Kirwan's inquiry by making statements based on preliminary reports or by responding to initial claims or assertions. However, I have been informed, that the board, management and fishery inspectors had total confidence in the boat and that it was crewed by experienced men. The most experienced officer on board, Mr. Haussmann, was safety officer. I have been informed that all crew had recently undergone training, including basic sea survival, with the Naval Service at Haulbowline, County Cork. Three of the four who died were wearing flotation suits. I have also been informed by the board that the boat was fitted with a radio and that it was operating on the day.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he tell the House if there was flare equipment on board the boat and why some sign did not emerge from it before it sank? Can he also advise the House of the qualifications of the skipper on board and whether any of the five men were fully qualified to operate the boat? Finally, does the Minister intend to make public the full details of this report? I believe the publication of this report and the details surrounding this terrible tragedy would be in the interests of the families concerned. I should like to extend my sympathy to those families. Does the Minister envisage in the longer term amending the legislation in relation to the use of monofilament net which caused this tragedy and other tragedies in the recent past?

I will take the supplementary questions seriatim. It is a complete mystery why no sign or signal emerged from the boat. This will be one of the major points to be explored by Captain Kirwan. I am convinced that the personnel on board were fully qualified to operate the boat.

With regard to making the details of the report public, it has not been the custom to publish the details of such inquiries. I believe that the relatives should be consulted. In many cases the relatives do not wish details to be published. But if I get the full agreement of the relatives in this case I should like to publish the report.

I am afraid that I have to reject the suggestion that the issue of the use of monofilament nets had anything to do with this accident. The Deputy knows well that the use of nets for salmon, no matter what their material, is illegal at weekends. Consequently if that was their mission, it had nothing to do with monofilament nets.

May I ask the Minister the section and Act under which the investigation will be conducted and whether the evidence which will be submitted will be sworn evidence? Would he consider having a public sworn inquiry into this accident in view of the fact that the boat used by these fishermen had, for certain reasons, not been used for a considerable period of time, and in view of the apparent ineffectivenes of the men's survival suits and the lack of a rescue signal?

The inquiry will be held under section 729 (1) of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which states, and I quote:

An inspector so appointed...

(a) may go on board any ship and inspect the same or any part thereof, or any of the machinery, boats, equipments, or articles on board thereof to which the provisions of this Act apply, not unnecessarily detaining or delaying her from proceeding on voyage; and

(b) may enter and inspect any premises, the entry or inspection of which appears to him to be requisite or the purpose of the report which he is directed to make; and,

(c) may, by summons under his hand, require the attendance of all such persons as he thinks fit to call before him and examine for the purpose of his report, and may require answers or returns to any inquiries he thinks fit to make; and

(d) may require or enforce the production of all books, papers, or documents which he considers important for the purpose of his report; and

(e) may administer oaths, or may, in lieu of requiring or administering an oath, require every person examined by him to make and subscribe a declaration of the truth of the statements made by him in his examination.

Those are the conditions and powers — and they are pretty extensive and strong — under which Captain Kirwan will be acting. If oaths are required he is empowered to take evidence on oath.

With regard to the suits used by the fishermen, I will await Captain Kirwan's report on this issue. As the House knows, one man survived — I spoke to him last night in Cork — and his evidence will be very important. Mr. Haussmann was barely alive when he was taken on board and regrettably died immediately afterwards.

I wish to join with the Minister in extending sympathy to the families of this terrible tragedy. The Minister said in his reply that there was a radio on board the vessel. When a crew are on such a mission would there normally be contact between the vessel and land at all times? Secondly, can the Minister say why the emergency beacon alarm, if there was one on board this vessel, which would have pinpointed the location of the accident failed to go off? Can he indicate to the House why the boat's reputedly unsinkable ballast failed to maintain the boat afloat on this occasion? Can he offer any explanation why three out of the four men failed to survive with the new survival units or buoyancy aids which had just been recently supplied?

There was radio contact between the boat and a mobile radio unit on shore. The big mystery is why no radio contact was made. No message came and the terrifying part of it is that what happened took place so quickly there was no time for any of the crew to make radio contact with the shore. The general belief was that even if the boat turned over it would not have sunk. However, it did sink and Captain Kirwan will have to investigate this.

I will hear very brief supplementaries from Deputies. They may know that I have further Private Notice Questions to deal with. I will call Deputy Taylor-Quinn for a very brief and relevant supplementary question, likewise Deputy Gilmore and Deputy Spring.

Given that the flotation suits used were not adequate — it has now been conclusively proved that they were inadequate — what plans have the Minister's Department to introduce alternative equipment? Are his Department investigating the possibility of a submarine being the cause of the sinking of this vessel given the fact that it was expected to float even if it capsized? Will the Minister give an indication to the House why the officers were not wearing life saving jackets?

Life saving jackets are not regarded as being as efficient as what the officers were wearing. It seems to me that it was the length of time in the sea, rather than the quality of what they were wearing, which caused the deaths. I am now speaking tentatively and I await the expert sifting of evidence by Captain Kirwan. I had not thought of the possibility of a submarine causing the accident but both my Department and the Garda have asked the Navy to identify where the boat is and to recover it. This will be very important in coming to a conclusion about what happened.

What about the suits?

They were state of the market, very high quality, new suits.

They have proved to be useless.

I am not saying they have been found to be useless.

Four people who were wearing buoyancy suits are now dead. Has the Minister any indication why it took so long for emergency assistance to be made available to these four men? One man was in the water for about five and a half hours. Why was the lifeboat not notified earlier?

I thought I made it quite clear why they were so long in the water. No signal reached land and I will have to await the report on the quality of what they were wearing because the suits were very expensive and of very good quality.

I will now call Deputy Spring and I will then hear a question from Deputy Gilmore.

With respect, the order of the Ceann Comhairle is that Deputy Gilmore is next.

I welcome one Deputy's consideration for another. Thank you, Deputy Spring.

I should like to pursue the Minister on the question of the publication of Captain Kirwan's report. As this is a matter of considerable public interest and as the men were drowned while on duty on behalf of a public authority, will the Minister give a categoric assurance that the report will be published? Will he also give some indication — I appreciate there may be some constraints on him in this regard — when he expects to have the report?

I will give a categorical assurance to the House that I will follow the principles in regard to the publication of the report which I outlined to Deputy Taylor-Quinn. I imagine I will receive the report in about three weeks.

I also request the Minister to make the report public because it is a matter of grave public importance so that lessons will be learned. In his previous response to me, the Minister said there had been no radio contact. Given that there was a delay of two hours and 20 minutes between the time the accident happened and the lifeboat being launched, will the Minister confirm whether there was radio contact between the vessel and the land base, which he described, prior to the accident?

I understand the radio equipment aboard the stricken boat was in operation and that it had a set land contact.