Dáil Éireann - Volume 476 - 13 March, 1997

Other Questions. - Marine Accident Investigations.

7. Mr. H. Byrne asked the Minister for the Marine if his attention has been drawn to the ongoing concern of the bereaved families of an accident at sea in September 1992 when two Irish fishermen lost their lives in a collision between the Orchidee and the French vessel the Agena; if the statements given by the French crew at the rogatory commission inquiry will be made available to his Department; the reason the families involved were not told of the retirement of a senior official dealing with the case; if a new person has been appointed and briefed on this issue; if this person will meet the families; if he will expedite the Irish inquiry into the affair; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6802/97]

Mr. Barrett: I refer the Deputy to my reply to his question on 11 February in which I explained that the Department's investigation into this accident could not be completed until a report on the proceedings of the maritime tribunal had been received from the French authorities.

[794] As the Deputy is aware, following sustained diplomatic effort over the past four years by the Irish authorities, I and officials of my Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Embassy in Paris and the French authorities finally completed their investigation which resulted in legal proceedings being brought against the skipper and one of the crewmen of the French vessel involved in the collision. These proceedings concluded on 27 September 1996 at the maritime tribunal at Lorient when both men were found guilty of negligence for their part in the sinking of the Orchidee. They were sentenced to one year and to three months' imprisonment, respectively. Both sentences were suspended for five years on the strict condition that no further offences of any sort were committed.

Since the tribunal hearing in September 1996 officials from my Department as well as officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Embassy in Paris have continued to press the French authorities to expedite the release of this report to the Irish authorities. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that as a result of this pressure the French Foreign Ministry has, in the past few days, made a copy of the report available to my Department through the normal diplomatic channels. I understand the report includes witness statements given to the court by the crew of the French vessel as well as details of the tribunal's findings. Arrangements are being made to have this report translated into English. Copies will be made available to the parties concerned and they have been so notified.

I confirm that the marine surveyor who conducted the initial investigation has since taken up other employment. The investigation will be finalised by the chief surveyor. While the departure of the original investigator has had no material bearing on the progress of the investigation as the report of the French proceedings was not to hand, I accept that the families should have been informed of this development and this omission is regretted.

My Department has endeavoured since 1992, when the accident occurred, to keep the bereaved relatives informed of progress in the investigation, particularly during the lengthy French legal process. I assure the Deputy that departmental officials will maintain regular contact with the families and keep them informed as further developments arise. Any request from the relatives to meet the investigating officer is a matter for him. He will consider such a request on its merits having regard to the procedures governing the conduct of investigations.

Mr. H. Byrne: I thank the Minister for acknowledging that the families of these men were ignored in some instances. This should not be allowed to happen in future. These families are rightly concerned at the length of time it has taken to reach this stage in the investigation. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Irish investigation, which has not yet commenced, is brought to a [795] conclusion as soon as possible so that these families can have some peace. I am sure Deputy Deasy has received many representations on this issue from the people on his side of the river.

There is a strong suspicion that the Orchidee was rammed by the Agena. This has been confirmed to some extent by the suspended sentence meted out to the skipper and one of the crewmen. Is the Minister aware of the many incidents at sea, including a recent one to which I do not wish to refer, where Irish vessels which have timber hulls and are vulnerable have been rammed by foreign vessels which have steel hulls? Does the Minister share my suspicion that there is more going on at sea than is reported on land? Has he taken an interest in this matter?

Mr. Barrett: I assure the Deputy I take an interest in any incident involving loss of life at sea, and will continue to do so. I am not in a position to speculate. As Minister, I can only deal with facts and, from time to time, statements are made——

Mr. H. Byrne: The facts are that the boat went down, it was sliced in half.

Mr. Barrett: I share Deputy Byrne's concern about the bereaved families. I fully appreciate that the continued delay in this matter will be a cause of great concern to them. I assure the Deputy and the families that the investigation will not be delayed any more than is absolutely necessary. It remains my intention to publish a report of this investigation, subject to normal legal considerations, as the Deputy will appreciate from his own experience. Unfortunately, in this case, Captain McGrath, who was carrying out the Irish inquiry, was unable to interview the French crew because the French maritime authorities proceeded with a judicial inquiry rather than a technical inquiry by a surveyor. As the judicial inquiry resulted in criminal proceedings being brought against the two crew members, the matter became, in Irish terms, sub judice. Captain McGrath's investigation was suspended pending the outcome of the criminal action. We put a great deal of pressure on the French authorities to bring this investigation to finality. It was as a result of a sustained diplomatic effort on our part.

Mr. H. Byrne: And on my part.

Mr. Barrett: I accept the Deputy has played a sincere role in this matter. All I can do is assure the families there will not be any unnecessary delays on our part in the future.