Friday, March 17, 2006
The Republic’s ombudsman is to launch an official investigation into a European Union-backed compensation scheme launched five years ago to reimburse fishing vessel owners who had lost boats at sea. Emily O’Reilly has described the Lost at Sea scheme of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources as “seriously deficient and flawed”. The scheme was launched in 2001 by then Fianna Fáil marine minister Frank Fahey. It ran for six months but just six out of 67 applicants qualified for compensation. It is known that some of the beneficiaries of the compensation programme were from Mr Fahey’s Galway West constituency. One of the applicants, the Byrne family from Bruckless in Co Donegal, were excluded from the scheme and launched an official complaint. Francis Byrne was the owner and skipper of the Skifjord, which sank off the Donegal coast in October 1981.
Emily O’ReillyMr Byrne, his son Jimmy and three crewmen died. Two of the bodies were never recovered. Mr Byrne’s wife was left to rear her surviving eight children. A surviving son, Danny, made the complaint to the ombudsman. Jim Higgins, the Fine Gael senator and MEP, has backed the family’s campaign. He said of the Lost at Sea scheme: “At its launch, it looked like an excellent scheme but it’s turned out to be more of a scam than a scheme. “It was only advertised in three marine publications — the Marine Times, The Skipper and the Fishing News. The scheme was not publicised on national or local television or radio or in the national or local press. “As a result, individuals or families who had lost fishing vessels and were no longer involved in fishing were unaware of the scheme and could therefore not apply. “The Byrnes were no longer involved in fishing and were totally unaware of the scheme. They applied late via minister and local TD Mary Coughlan but their application was rejected on the basis that it was too late.” Mr Higgins has praised the diligence of the ombudsman in investigating the case. “When the ombudsman went digging for information in relation to the Skifjord — in which five people had drowned — the department replied that they had no record of the Skifjord case. When the ombudsman persisted, the department eventually recovered two files on the Skifjord which had been ‘in cold storage’. “We are also demanding to know where the tonnage and the licence of that boat went after it sank,” he said. Senator Higgins added: “Clearly the ombudsman is angry and frustrated at the refusal by the Department of the Marine to address the ombudsman’s reservations about the scheme. “It has since come to light under a freedom-of-information application that 75 per cent of the replacement tonnage allocated under the scheme went to two of Minister Fahey’s constituents. It has also emerged that a recommendation by a senior civil servant to reject the application of one of Minister Fahey’s constituents was overruled.” In a letter from the ombudsman’s office, Danny Byrne was told: “A formal investigation is very rarely resorted to by the ombudsman and takes place when she is unable to secure redress for a complainant under standard informal investigation.” Under the law, the ombudsman can demand any information, document or file from a public body complained of and can require any official to give information about a complaint. In most instances, the ombudsman’s recommendations are complied with. If the public body concerned fails to act on the ombudsman’s recommendations, she may present a special report to the Houses of the Oireachtas on the matter.