Seanad Éireann - Volume 107 - 06 February, 1985

Adjournment Matter. - Irish Shipping Employees' Pensions.

Mr. Magner: I should like to thank the Minister for his presence here — I appreciate that he did not send a deputy — to hear the case on Irish Shipping pensions. As I address this House this evening I have only one fear, that is, that my contribution will be inadequate in demonstrating the injustices done to a body of people to whom this country owes a great deal.

I should like to begin by reading into the record of the House a letter that appeared in The Irish Times in the last few days which was written by the master of the Irish Spruce which is at present tied up in Marseilles. It reads:

As you can imagine, life out here can become very boring and frustrating, just waiting for the boom to fall on our jobs and our future. I think the most depressing news so far has been that the pensions of our predecessors have been cut to a figure comparable to the pocket-money of many teenagers today. Memories in high places are very short-lived, but I guess some of out leaders weren't even born during the Emergency, so why should I worry? What hope then for us in our fight for an equitable settlement after giving most of our working lives in unstinting loyalty to a wholly-owned State company? I would call on all [207] politicians who are worth their salt to stand up and be counted.

This is a moment, I hope, when those of us who care can be counted. I sincerely hope that the Government can be included. I want to declare a personal interest in this matter. Twenty years ago my own brother was lost at sea with Irish Shipping; lost at sea like so many more, he was one of the young men who died in the service of the company and through service with the company.

This issue arises in the first place because a State company was put into liquidation. This has never happened before and all of us here pray that it will never happen again. The liquidation in itself was without precedent and I submit that the fear of the company's pensioners is also unprecedented.

I should like to read into the record of the House some facts which may not be so well known in relation to Irish Shipping. First, the executive, clerical and seagoing staff of Irish Shipping had no part in the charter decisions which led to the eventual liquidation of that company. During the entire 40 years history of the company there was not a single strike. Irish Shipping Limited recorded 15 consecutive years of profit and therefore could not be titled in any shape or form a white elephant. There is also the case that executive staff worked long hours overtime over many years for which they received no payment. Salaries and conditions of employment were strictly controlled by the Department of the Public Service. Irish Shipping staff were State employees and were regarded as such until the provisional liquidator was appointed.

What all this means is that there are no easy examples to fall back on in deciding how to respond. It means also that we in the Labour Party were entitled to feel aggrieved on behalf of these workers and the way they have been treated. In all of the liquidations that have occurred in the private sector over the last number of years, there have been very few where the pension scheme collapsed with the [208] company. It happened in this case. I can assure the House and the Minister that if we in the Labour Party had known the tragedy that was going to happen to people who in many cases had given a life service there would have been no way in which we would have allowed this to happen while we stood by. I think I can speak for the entire Parliamentary party when I say we are not prepared to stand by now and see people who deserve far better treatment victimised in this way.

When I use the word tragedy I am talking about human tragedy. It is not an issue that just involves money. If we allow the pensioners of this State company to be robbed, as they are being robbed, we are consenting to the loss of their dignity, the dignity of being able to provide even at the end of a working life.

I should like to give the House some examples of the treatment that is being meted out to those people. In individual cases pensions have been reduced from £270 a month to £40 a month, from £925 a month to £141 a month; in what looks like real meanness some very small pensions have been made even smaller, for instance from £13 a month to £9 a month. In a number of cases the pensions have been removed altogether. Some people with incomes of between £60 and £90 a week now have absolutely nothing. All of this might be understandable if the cost of protecting these pensions ran into millions. It would make some sense perhaps if someone could tell us that we were going to break the banks or upset the Government's economic strategy to right this gross injustice. But it is not. The total number of people involved is 48 and the cost of providing a small measure of dignity for them, or rather of restoring the dignity we have taken away, is less than £85,000 per year. What has happened here for the sake of a pittance is that we have taken away the rights of a small group of people who have served this country in a unique way. What possible objection can there be to remedy the damage the State has done? There will, no doubt, be some who would argue that to treat this case in a way which it deserves would create a precedent that [209] might work against the State in the future. That argument will not wash at all.

Apart from other considerations, I have already pointed out that this situation in itself is without precedent. It happened only because a State company went to the wall, with a badly-managed under-funded non-contributory pension scheme going with it. If we have other such companies and other such pension schemes we should learn from Irish Shipping. I do not believe that any Deputy or Senator, whether in the Government parties or in Opposition, would be prepared to allow a situation like this one to arise again. For our part in the Labour Party we will simply not allow more State pensioners to be thrown on the scrap heap. This is a point I want to stress to the Minister, because an argument will undoubtedly be made in quarters where there is no knowledge of the unique contribution of that particular body of men and women that there is nothing special about these pensioners. That could not be more wrong. What we are talking about here is a unique group who have made a contribution to the country that is also unique.

At the time when neutrality was most under threat during the last war it was the officers and crews of the Irish Merchant Navy and Irish Shipping in particular who preserved our neutrality. Without them we would not have survived what we sometimes call “The Emergency”. In a very real sense they were the only Irishmen who went out to fight and to die for this country in that war. They went out to fight without guns and in leaky old ships that were unable to withstand the slightest assault. I have specialised knowledge on that in so far as I sailed on a number of leaky old ships. From some of the descriptions I have heard of the ships that Irish Shipping took to sea in the forties they were either extremely foolish or extremely brave, and I believe they were the latter. We are talking here about people who are real patriots in every sense of the word.

Lest there be any doubt that it was the men of Irish Shipping who protected our [210] neutrality, I should like to read into the record some of the research work done by Robert Fisk for his book In Time of War. First, I should like to read a memo from Winston Churchill, and I would ask the House to take note of the menace contained in the last phrase: I quote Churchill to his Minister:

I agree with the general line of your talk. I could in no circumstances give the guarantee asked for and for the reasons you state.

About arms. If we were assured that it was Southern Ireland's intention to enter the war, we would of course if possible beforehand share our anti-aircraft weapons with them and make secretly with them all possible necessary arrangements for their defence. Until we are so satisfied, we do not wish them to have further arms, and certainly will not give them ourselves.

The concession about Lough Swilly is important and shows the way things are moving. No attempt should be made to conceal from Mr. de Valera the depth and intensity of feeling against the policy of Irish neutrality. We have tolerated and acquiesced in it, but juridically we have never recognised that Southern Ireland is an independent Sovereign State, and she herself has repudiated Dominion Status. Her international status is undefined and anomalous. Should the present situation last till the end of the war, which is unlikely, a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation.

Let me have a further report on the economic pressure.

The extent of the economic pressure that the British were prepared to use was enormous. For example, in 1940, 74,000 tons of fertiliser was imported from Britain. But in 1941 that had been reduced to a trickle of 7,000 tons. None at all was received in 1942. Similarly, well over five million tons of feedingstuff was imported in 1940 and it was down to one million tons in 1941 and none at all over the next [211] four years.

By 1941, Eamon de Valera was asking Irish farmers to double their acreage of wheat in order to avoid starvation and threatening penalties for farmers who planted alternative crops. This was the background in which Irish Shipping was established. I quote again from Robert Fisk:

Irish Shipping Limited was formed in March 1941 and bought its first vessel, the Irish Poplar within a few weeks. Built in 1912, she had already been attacked by a German bomber in the Bay of Biscay while sailing under a Greek flag, and her Irish crew had to travel to Spain to collect her from a salvage company.

That is what they went to sea in, ships that were unseaworthy but were desperately necessary for the survival of the State. I quote again from the book:

Irish ownership, however, proved no firm defence against attack by either of the belligerents. In February 1940, the passenger ferry Munster, on charter to the Belfast Steamship Company but flying the Tricolour, was mined in Liverpool Bay. Then in August, the Kerry Head, a Limerick collier, was subjected to a more deliberate assault and attacked by an unidentified aircraft off the Old Head of Kinsale. Several bombs fell around her but the crew were unhurt. In the same month, another mine destroyed the Irish livestock carrier Meath. All Irish vessels sailed under their neutral flag. Up to four huge Tricolours were painted on the sides of each ship together with the word “Eire” in letters 20 feet high, but Allied and Axis aircraft and submarines sometimes mistook Irish ships for French, British or German vessels and the crews suffered accordingly. In September 1940, for example, the cement carrier Luimneach, which had already been damaged by bombs at Valencia during the Spanish Civil War, was stopped by a German submarine in the Bay of Biscay, while on her way [212] to Drogheda. Despite the name “Eire” on Luimneach's hull, the U-boat's captain ordered the crew into their boats and then sank the vessel by gunfire. For several months afterwards, the Irish Government believed that the submarine was Italian although it was in fact U 46, commanded by Oberleutnant Engelbert Endrass who recorded dismissively in his war diary, that the Luimneach had been flying a “British or Irish flag”.

A further extract points clearly to the damage to which Irish ships, although neutral, were subjected. I quote from Robert Fisk's book again because I believe it is extremely necessary that the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are fully aware of the obligation and the debt which is due to the people on whose behalf I speak this evening:

In October, the Kerry Head was sunk after being attacked by an aircraft off Cape Clear, County Cork. Her destruction, with the loss of 12 crew, was watched by several people on Clear Island although to this day the nationality of the plane that attacked her is unknown. An eyewitness said long after the war that a German plane dropped a stick of bombs on the vessel at around two o'clock in the afternoon, that the Kerry Head exploded in a sheet of flame and that the blast from the explosion brought down the aircraft which crashed in the sea. A trawler was moored off Cape Clear but did not have sufficient fuel to reach the scene of the attack. An Irish launch was only taken from Berehaven at 8 o'clock in the evening because the authorities were not at first convinced that there had been a sinking. Some of those who watched the attack from Clear Island claimed later that they saw survivors clinging to wreckage after the explosion. Two months later, another unidentified aircraft bombed the Irish lightship tender Isolde, whose captain had been third officer on the Lusitania when she was torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale in 1915. The bombs that hit [213] the Isolde started a fire in which six of the crew were killed.

My final extract from this book is one which I think has a particular appropriateness for the motion I put before this House this evening.

Irish shipping companies did their best to protect their crews. Their vessels were degaussed to protect them from magnetic mines, and Hempel was given details of all Irish vessels for him to pass on to the German Admiralty and the Luftwaffe. German naval and air crews were instructed to check their targets but inside the blockade zone around Britain, they did not always have to do so. The Irish only learned of this in the last months of the war after an extraordinary incident in which a U-boat scuttled itself off Cork. The crew had put their ship's documents into two metal canisters and thrown them overboard before rowing ashore and being taken into custody at Collins Barracks in Cork. But the canisters later floated on to the beach and were retrieved.... The 20 crew members of the submarine were installed at the barracks, singing German songs as they made their way to and from their meals, unaware that Colonel Bryan of G2 had sent Douglas Gageby, one of his young intelligence officers, down to Cork to examine the canisters.

Inside them, he found ship's papers, a series of photographs of an air attack on a small trawler and a copy of the submarine's Standing War Orders, signed by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the former Flag Officer U-boats and now Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy.

This is what they said:

... basically Irish ships also come under neutrality regulations.... In addition, for political reasons, Irish ships and also at times Irish convoys are not to be attacked within the blockade zone if they are seen to be such. However, there is no special obligation to determine neutrality in the blockade zone.

[214] The extracts I have read out demonstrate the case I have been pursuing here this evening. During the war 135 members of the Irish Merchant Navy died at sea and a large proportion of fatalities suffered domestically over that five year period were in fact members of Irish Shipping. These same sailors — we are talking about the sailors of Irish Shipping — also saved a total of 521 lives, sailors of all nationalities, British, American, German as well as Italian.

The other point the extract makes is that there could hardly be any greater or more savage irony than the only tribute we are prepared to pay at the end of it all is to slash the pensions of the men who fought to protect us, to supply us with essentials and even to feed us. We can only be ashamed if we do not rectify this injustice.

To sum up, there are no precedents for this situation and no reason to suppose it will create any. The number of people involved is small and the cost is miserly, no more than £85,000 a year. It is totally wrong that we should choose to ignore the contribution Irish Shipping made at a time when we really needed it. If we cannot resolve the injustice that has been done in this case it will be a long time before I — and I believe I speak for many of my colleagues in this House — will be persuaded to acquiesce in another decision like the one which led to the closure of Irish Shipping. I believe this cause has justice and I believe, because of the calibre of the Minister in charge and also because of the faith I have in this Government and in this Cabinet, that not alone will justice be done but it will be done swiftly.

Minister for Communications (Mr. J. Mitchell): I thank Senator Magner for raising this issue in the Seanad. He has recalled eloquently the service of Irish Shipping personnel, particularly during World War II. He has argued very cogently the case for the pensioners of Irish Shipping. I fully sympathise with the sentiments expressed by Senator [215] Magner. Indeed, in advance of liquidation this eventuality was anticipated; every angle was considered, and this is one of the sadder aspects of the whole liquidation, that people on pension could suffer in this way. Ever since liquidation I have been examining up-side-down and down-side-up ways and means of possibly helping a situation like this. One might ask why has this problem not been resolved. I want to assure the House that it has not been resolved not because of any lack of sympathy on the part of the Minister or on the part of the Government but because there are legal and financial sensitivities involved; there are implications involved which thus far it has not been possible to overcome. I am still examining the matter with all urgency. I have particular sympathy for all the pensioners but I think everyone would feel that those who did serve during those trying times in World War II deserve our special sympathy and they certainly have mine.

Sympathy in a situation like this is not much good. I am sorry that I am not in a position to announce to the House any firm proposals in this regard. I want to recall the background to the situation. Senator Magner mentioned that the pensions schemes had collapsed; that is not what happened. The three pension schemes operable in Irish Shipping are [216] intact. There was one for the senior executives, there was one for the seagoing staff and there was one for the shore staff. Irish Shipping decided to top up those pensions by ex gratia payments of various amounts. In some cases they also made ex gratia payments to people or dependants who had been in their care when no pension was payable. There are 48 people involved of whom I understand about ten had service during the World War. The pensions schemes have not collapsed although the position I gather is that the trustees of the pensions schemes are bound by the terms of them to wind up the pensions schemes and return the funds to the members of the schemes.

I hope that, without raising too many hopes, I will be in a position to announce some alleviation at least for those who served during the World War before too long. There are legal and financial implications. Sometimes this can be infuriating for somebody who is not a legal expert and who wishes just to get things done. Everyone will share my view that the liquidation of Irish Shipping had nothing to do with the employees of Irish Shipping, much less the pensioners. They do deserve the sympathy of this House and the country.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday 13 February 1985.