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New Bill aims to 'draw some good' out of a tragic boating accident that left two men dead

John O’Brien and Patrick Esmonde died off Helvick Head, Co Waterford in 2010.

Ann-Marie O'Brien with her brother John.
Ann-Marie O'Brien with her brother John.
Image: Ann-Marie O'Brien

A NEW BILL on marine accident investigations aims to draw “some good out of a tragedy that befell two families” nine years ago, when two men drowned off the coast of Waterford.

John O’Brien and his friend Patrick Esmonde went fishing in a dinghy off Helvick Head, Co Waterford on the afternoon of Sunday 23 May 2010.

The two men from Tipperary drowned some time after 5pm that evening. Neither of the men had seafaring experience, and only John could swim.

An inquest into the tragedy in Dungarvan in September 2013 returned an open verdict.

Since 2010, the families of the two men have had misgivings about the standard of investigation by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB).

Last year, John’s sister, Anne-Marie O’Brien, accused Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of gross insensitivity for saying that a public inquiry into the deaths won’t “bring anyone back”.

Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath said his Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Amendment Bill 2019, seeks to revise the requirements for composition of the MCIB and to provide for related matters.

‘Bizarre circumstances’

What this Bill seeks to do is rectify the “bizarre circumstances” whereby there is no legal obligation whatsoever on the Transport Minister to ensure that members of the MCIB have maritime or marine-accident experience, said McGrath. 

“I have worked closely with John O’Brien’s sister Anne-Marie to have a full, open and thorough investigation to establish the exact cause of death. The fight will continue.”

Ensuring that someone on the investigations board has experience in the area is “vital component, by anyone’s yardstick”, he said.

“This has always been a major issue for the two families, who have never accepted the official outcome of the investigation into the deaths on the summer’s day. If this Bill is accepted and passed, it will strengthen the onus on the Minister and his agents to ensure that qualified and suitable candidates are selected for the membership of the board. Maritime experience should be a prerequisite. It is a fair and reasonable requirement given the gravity of the cases that may need to be investigated,” said McGrath. 

Comparing two jurisdictions, McGrath said the Irish system “stands in stark contrast” to the equivalent board in the United Kingdom, where marine casualty investigation experience is a prerequisite and a requirement.

Disappointment in Garda investigation 

McGrath told the Dail this week that he is “hugely disappointed with the Garda investigation, or lack of one” into the incident. 

While McGrath said he is often critical of Minister Shane Ross, on this occasion he wanted to thank him for visiting Anne-Marie in her home. He said that the minister “listened to her and is interested in making changes here”. 

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In the past, it has proved more difficult to get political support on the issue, with Ann-Martin saying that she has tried to meet with a number of ministers since her brother’s death, including Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald and Leo Varadkar.

In 2015, she told it was “incredibly frustrating” that the then-Minister for Transport (now Minister for Finance) Paschal Donohoe would not meet with the bereaved families.

At the time, Anne-Marie also said that she had been in touch with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, but that her office said there was nothing she could do “because the inquest ruled an accidental verdict”. The verdict, however, was an open one, said Anne-Marie.

“I certainly hope the Bill can be accepted by the Government and can be dealt with sensitively and appropriately,” said McGrath this week. 

He added the integrity of the investigation process must be protected so as to ensure that “no stone is left unturned for the loved ones left behind in cases involving marine accidents with fatalities”.

“They happen, unfortunately, and it is a tragedy but we need to have the fullest possible investigations as well as expertise on this board which sadly we do not have,” he added. 

McGrath expressed his heartfelt admiration to the O’Brien and Esmonde families, who have persisted in their campaign for answers for almost a decade.

“It is so harrowing,” he said, adding:

We have young families left without a dad and no proper answers. John and Anne-Marie’s families and the family of Patrick Esmonde can rightly be proud of the work Anne-Marie has done and will continue to do.

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