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'It was a very low thing to say' - sister of drowned man slams Varadkar for saying inquiry won't 'bring anyone back'

Leo Varadkar discussed the case with Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath in Dáil Éireann on 30 May.

image1 Anne-Marie with her brother John

THE SISTER OF a man who drowned, along with a friend, off the Waterford coast in 2010 has accused Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of gross insensitivity for saying that a public inquiry into the deaths won’t “bring anyone back”.

Responding to a parliamentary question from independent TD Mattie McGrath several weeks ago in the Dáil, in which McGrath condemned the investigatory abilities of bodies such as the Garda Ombudsman (GSOC), Varadkar said that adding the case of the drowned men to the list of those which merit public inquiries “would take many more years, would not necessarily get people the answers they want, and certainly would not bring anyone back”.

35-year-old John O’Brien and his friend Patrick Esmonde (36) went fishing in a dinghy off Helvick Head, Co Waterford, on the afternoon of Sunday, 23 May 2010. The two Tipperary men drowned sometime after 5pm that evening.

Neither of the two had seafaring experience, and only John O’Brien could even swim.

O’Brien’s family, who are of the belief that both the Garda and Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) investigations into the deaths were inadequate, have been calling for a public inquiry into the men’s deaths ever since.

Source: Mattie/Facebook

“I was shocked at what he said, and felt sad, and then I felt angry,” John O’Brien’s sister Anne Marie told TheJournal.ie.

‘Insulting’

“I just felt it was insulting to people, who are only seeking justice. To speak like that about the deceased who can’t speak for themselves.”

The Taoiseach is a young man who has spoken about a need for more fairness and compassion in Ireland. I felt what he said was desperately insensitive. We know John is not coming back, we don’t need it pointed out.

“It was just a very low thing to say

Her sentiments are echoed by McGrath, who says the accident has “never been properly investigated”.

An inquest into the tragedy in Dungarvan in September 2013 returned an open verdict, that is, the deaths were ruled as suspicious but without a specific cause (the original MCIB report was published in February 2012).

More recently, a 15-month Garda review of the initial investigation, beginning January 2017, failed to turn up any new evidence of consequence. That review also denied the family a public appeal for information – something they had hoped for.

“I felt what the Taoiseach said was extremely insensitive,” said McGrath. “It glosses over all manner of stuff. He has no idea how hurtful that was.”

It’s shameful.

“The Taoiseach extends his sincere sympathies to the O’Brien and Esmonde families for their loss,” a spokesperson for Leo Varadkar told TheJournal.ie in response to a request for comment on the matter of his Dáil speech.

The MCIB is entirely independent in the carrying out of its duties. However, as is on the public record, the MCIB carried out an investigation into the deaths of Mr O’Brien and Mr Esmonde, and its report was published in 2012.
Following its publication, the Board received correspondence from the O’Brien family in relation to the incident. Following this the Board examined transcripts from the inquest and subsequently met with one of the witnesses whom the family felt would be able to provide additional evidence. The board met with this witness to elaborate on his deposition to the inquest.

“According to the MCIB, no new evidence has been presented to the Board which could be likely to materially alter the findings of the investigation on foot of meeting with the witness,” they added.

For her family’s part Anne Marie says the issue of her brother’s death is “too important to let go”.

“As my father would say, you can’t have this happening to another family,” she said.

“I don’t believe that my brother was swimming when this accident happened. They were both wearing all their clothes for starters,” she said. “What we want is that in these cases an incident room be set up straight away. That a public appeal for information be made immediately. We were hoping for such a public appeal out of the Garda review but it didn’t happen.”

She likewise believes that gardaí investigating such a tragedy should be adequately trained and equipped to handle a marine investigation, something she believes the Waterford gardaí who dealt with the accident weren’t.

Expertise

The people there didn’t have the expertise to head to sea to investigate. In England the marine board is on the scene straight away. Not here.

Of the MCIB, she says she believes those on the board are not invested enough in their investigations.

The MCIB was set up under the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act in 2000 to investigate marine casualties and publish reports of such investigations.

“The Taoiseach, when Minister for Transport, appointed three people to the Marine Casualty Investigations Board (MCIB), none of whom had seafaring experience. We believe that the MCIB should have people on its board who have had to go to sea, and put bodies in body bags, and then deliver them to their families. Then they might take investigations seriously,” she says.

AnneMarie has met or tried to meet with a number of ministers since her brother’s death, including Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Shane Ross, and Varadkar himself, when he was Minister for Transport.

The bereaved families are now concentrating their efforts with regard to securing a public inquiry on the Department of Justice.

McGrath says they are nowhere close to giving up.

“We’re not going away,” he said, adding that in his opinion “the system is the problem”.

“Maybe something good will come of the new Garda Commissioner being appointed,” he said. “Because I’m not happy about how this was investigated. Justice needs to be done.”

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