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There must be a full investigation into Lost at Sea scheme – Doherty

31 March, 2010 - by Pearse Doherty TD

Speaking in the Seanad today, Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty supported the Ombudsman’s assessment of the Lost at Sea scheme as ‘deficient and flawed’ and called for a full investigation to be carried out into all aspects of the way in which the scheme operated.
He said:
“At the outset I would like to welcome the fact that the Agriculture and Fisheries Committee this morning agreed to invite the Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly in to a meeting and I hope that this will be part of the overall investigation of the Lost at Sea scheme as is called for in the motion before us here. I would also like to support the motion.
“The Ombudsman’s report describes the Lost at Sea scheme as “seriously deficient and flawed” and that is clearly an accurate summary of what took place. She found that the Byrne family from my own county was treated unfairly in relation to their claim for compensation following the loss of two members of the Byrne family and three crewmen when their boat the Skifjord sank in 1981.
“The Byrne family were excluded from the scheme because they applied a year after applications had closed but they argued that the scheme should have been publicised more widely and that they were unaware of it, as were others who might have been eligible. The reason given for the failure of the Department to notify the Byrne family was that the Department of the Marine claimed to have no record of the tragic incident that led to the loss of the vessel and those on board. That being despite the fact that lives were lost and the incident was widely reported at the time. It seems strange that the Department responsible for overseeing the fishing sector and which is so meticulous in other areas related to fishing vessels and fishing regulations was not aware of it, nor had officially recorded it. Apart from the failure to advertise the scheme more widely and inform the Byrne family the Ombudsman found that others who applied were written to in order to inform them of its existence. On what basis was it decided to contact those individuals and not others? There are also serious issues to be addressed regarding those who were deemed eligible, the criteria employed, and the level of compensation awarded to some but not to others.
“The Ombudsman agreed with the Byrne family in its complaints regarding all of these issues and also concluded that because of the way in which it was designed that it was applied inequitably. On that basis she recommended that the Byrne family be compensated and a figure of just under €250,000 was calculated as the amount but this was rejected by the Department even though it was officials within the Department who had arrived at the compensation figure.
“The attitude of Department officials probably reflected their own scepticism regarding the Lost at Sea Scheme. When the Scheme was proposed there was opposition to it from within the Department on the basis of concerns over allocating quota but the then Minister responsible Frank Fahey overruled those objections. The manner in which the scheme operated only heightened that concern.
“The Ombudsman also referred to the fact that two constituents of the Minister Frank Fahey had originally suggested the establishment of the scheme. The two people in question received compensatory tonnage of €2 million, from the scheme. That was out of a total of just €2.8 million in tonnage awarded to the six successful applicants. There is also the claim that the criteria were changed in order that one of those two people would qualify despite being found not to fit the criteria laid down.
“Of the 67 applicants who did apply between June 2001 and the closing of the scheme on December 31, only six were accepted. €2.8 in replacement tonnage was paid out to those six successful applicants, and the two people I have just referred to, the then Minister’s constituents got 75 per cent or €2.1 million of the total value of tonnage. It was later discovered that although the scheme did not close until December 31 2001, that Minister Fahey had written to his two constituents in October congratulating them on being successful. They were among only six of the 67 applicants to be accepted.
“However, it was found that one of those persons did not actually qualify according to the original criteria but he appealed and was “accepted in 2003 with one of the reasons cited for the award being the fact that Minister Fahey’s letter of congratulations had created the reasonable expectation that he would in fact receive compensation.
“It should be noted in the context of the Ombudsman’s report on the Byrne’s family application, that it was being processed before the 2003 decision on the above case and yet they were still turned down. Even on that basis they were treated unfairly.
“These issues have been raised before and were referred to in a number of press reports. They were also mentioned in this House by Trevor Sargent in June 2006 during the course of an extensive survey of Deputy Fahey’s property holdings. Deputy Sargent specifically mentioned the fact that two of the then Minister’s constituents had received such a large share of the compensation paid under the Lost at Sea scheme. He then went on to call on the then Taoiseach Mr. Ahern to sack Mr. Fahey.
“The claim regarding the two individuals was contained in a piece in Ireland on Sunday two weeks later which also claimed that the two people concerned had in fact suggested setting up the scheme in the first place and that the criteria governing applications were changed in order to facilitate one of those persons. All of this has been confirmed by an investigation of the documents relating to the scheme and the processing of applications.
“It is clear from the Ombudsman’s report and all of the other issues surrounding this scheme, including those I have referred to, that a full investigation needs to be carried out into all aspects of the way in which the Lost at Sea scheme operated. That is why it is necessary that it be referred to and fully discussed at the Committee. As I said at the start, I welcome this morning’s decision by the Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries to invite the Ombudsman in and also hope that that will be the start of a more intensive investigation. And of course I would hope that the report and the subsequent debate will lead to the Byrne family finally being treated as the Ombudsman has ruled.” ENDS

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