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Summary of Aims
The families of those who died in the 1979 Whiddy Island Disaster when the French oil tanker, MV Betelgeuse, caught fire and exploded at Gulf Oil’s Whiddy Island Oil Terminal’s offshore jetty in Bantry Bay, Co Cork are applying to the High Court due to the Irish State's failure to address multiple safety failings which caused the death of 50 people; 42 French, seven Irish and one Englishman, on the 08th January 1979 in the worst industrial maritime disaster to occur in the Republic of Ireland's history. 23 of the French victims were never found.
This is an appeal to ask for your help by making a contribution to the legal costs of this action which, for the reasons stated below, is hugely important to the rights of Irish workers in all industry today, and to European citizens, and the safety of the domestic and international maritime community. We, The French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse believe that we have a strong case and if successful, with an anticipated costs recovery, the donations of those who support the families will be returned or given to the below listed charities. Your contribution would be of enormous help and support.
The families are applying to the High Court for rectification of the victims’ death certificates, in view of clearly unlawful breaches of 1979 legislation by the Terminal Operator. The facts were clearly set out in Mr Justice Declan Costello's 1980 Report on the Disaster at Whiddy Island and no action was taken. In the same manner as the recently successful application under European law by the families of the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in the United Kingdom, the families are asking that a coroners hearing be reconvened and that the coroner is directed by the High Court to find the deaths ‘unlawful’, thereby establishing the victims rights in death correctly, and that an appropriate State apology is issued to the families and all the below mentioned parties affected, and that the State carries out a thorough review of Ireland's maritime and energy regulatory framework and implements currently outstanding international maritime regulation demonstrating that the State has finally learnt from this appalling tragedy.
Reason for Action
The disaster devastated the families involved, the community of Bantry and Co Cork, communities in France and England, and left workers and rescue personnel , who were forced into terrible danger, in trauma. Despite repeated requests for assistance in helping to commemorate those who died to leaders of the Irish State, and repeated requests to carry out a through review of Irish maritime regulation, the State leaders have consistently failed to support the families, and have ignored correspondence regarding safety. In 1979 Ireland had failed to ratify the International Convention, SOLAS 1974, agreed at the International Maritime Organisation in 1974, which included mandatory use of inert gas systems to prevent explosions on oil tankers. Ireland did not ratify the convention until after the disaster, and on the night of the disaster, many of those who died were in the water swimming to the Island when the final fatal explosion occurred, which would have been prevented if the MV Betelgeuse was carrying an inert gas system. Despite repeated requests in recent years the Irish Government has ignored the families’ request that Ireland ratify further international conventions that have been agreed by the international community, and many amendments to the SOLAS convention, to save life, protect our environment, and protect our precious rescue services from being unnecessarily called out, thereby putting further life at great risk, which is, of course, what happened on 08 January 1979.
Further, several employees of the Terminal Operator, Gulf Oil, perjured themselves during the Tribunal under the guidance of Gulf Oil, as clearly concluded by Mr Justice Declan Costello, changing time lines about the commencement of the disaster, and clearly contrary to the overwhelming attested evidence of the community of Bantry, in an attempt to shift liability for the death of all personnel due to their inadequate safety systems to the oil tanker owners, Total Oil S.A.
The charges for perjury that were brought against these employees were inexplicably dismissed in the District Court and none of those who encouraged this dishonesty were pursued. This was a fundamental State failing in the administration of justice by the institutions of the State and no explanation has ever been provided for that failure by the State.
"Because of the economic situation of the last few years present manpower is frequently stretched to the limit and preventative maintenance of equipment, so necessary in an exposed environment, appears to be falling behind. This is regrettable. It is going to be all the more difficult to catch up later on. The reason for the cut-back is well understood, but one wonders if standards can be kept up. Just to give an example, the Milford Haven Conservancy Board, with less equipment than Bantry, have found the need of one officer and three men to maintain their equipment. There is a distinct need for a dedicated job for the maintenance of all equipment and there may well prove need of more than one person for that job".
The crew and jetty workers waited on the offshore jetty to be saved with no fire fighting systems activated due to Gulf Oil reducing operation of fire-fighting equipment from automatic to manual in line with these commercial cut backs.
The back-up firefighting and rescue vessels were allowed to be removed from their designated positions beside the MV Betelgeuse, clearly contrary to Irish law. Moreover, in addition to many other failings, in addition to the fire-fighting equipment and systems for activating fire-fighting operations being downgraded by the Oil Terminal Operator, they removed the bridge to the Island, clearly contrary to Irish law in 1979. Consequently everyone waited for at least 25 minutes with no ability to fight the fire before the tanker exploded. As concluded by the Tribunal the Despatcher on the Island whose responsibility it was to activate the manual system, was absent from his post.
Additionally when questioned about their safety systems before the Disaster by the Fire Department of Cork County Council the Operator wrongly stated that all systems were in place. The State denied Cork County Council jurisdiction on Whiddy Island and therefore the ability to check if what the Operator was saying was truthful. Moreover, the State’s decision to deny Cork Co Council jurisdiction was a failure in their duty of care to the residents of Whiddy Island leaving them in perilous danger.
Furthermore, the Marine Department of the Ministry of Transport Culture and Sport, which is responsible for implementing and enforcing the aforementioned regulation today is currently in fundamental breach of European law by involving its personnel on the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB). This is a huge conflict of interest, as Marine incidents involve the analysis of the regulatory framework and its enforcement so they are effectively investigating themselves. This is contrary to European law, which clearly states the MCIB has to be independent, and despite threats by the European Commission that Ireland will be taken to the European Court of justice, this conflict of interest has been allowed to continue by the State, as highlighted in the Irish Times . This is a dereliction of duty by the State to the families of maritime accidents, and to the broader community who need to learn valuable lessons from accidents. This status quo provides the inevitable potential consequence of a repeat of the failing by the State after the Whiddy Island Disaster not to focus on the adequacy both of its regulatory framework and its enforcement. ALL investigations with this conflict in place need to be reviewed due to this fundamental failing.
Furthermore, Ireland has failed to enact Corporate Manslaughter legislation, which, if it had been in place in 1979 would have resulted in the companies involved being charged if fair and objective procedure would have been applied. The Law Commission of Ireland recommended Corporate Manslaughter legislation in 2005. The United Kingdom enacted it in 2007. Despite its obvious importance successive Irish Governments have consistently failed to enact the legislation leaving Irish workers in all industries wide open to abuse.
The sum of all these failings by the Irish State amount to a quite unbelievable failure in the approach to maritime safety, maritime safety investigations, the protection of our precious rescue services from being unnecessarily called out, and the administration of justice. The lack of humanity by the State to the victims families of the Whiddy Island Disaster when attempting to commemorate their beloved family members who died, and this continuing theme of failing to prioritise maritime regulation and safety has compounded this scandal and caused unbelievable and immeasurable grief.
Additionally those who had to fight the fire in terrible circumstances both on Whiddy Island and in the rescue services have been left unassisted with a lifetime of torment and difficulty to deal with. Similar to the one issued by Prime Minister Cameron to the Hillsborough victims’ families in the United Kingdom, the State owe a lengthy, honest, and heartfelt apology to everyone involved, including those employees found to have suppressed the truth in the Tribunal and their families, because they were allowed to be pressurised by the Operator and their lawyers, with no intervention by the State to identify why this happened and why they became the critical points of safety on the night, when they should not have been, were it not for the fundamental aforementioned breaches in safety legislation, which went unquestioned by the State.
The families have repeatedly asked the State to meet to discuss these issues and adopt a ‘collective and positive spirit of enterprise’ to rectify the failings, and protect Irish Society today. All correspondence has been ignored, and the State has been warned that this action will be taken.
Family Correspondence with Irish Government 10 January 2019
"It is time now for us to take these issues very seriously. As we said yesterday in the Church, the approach is not good enough. We have to address these issues, and we can do that in an enormously positive way, by embracing the issues, and by taking the strain away from the families who have been through too much, and have had to carry this heavy burden alone. We do not want to have to make the trip to the Four Courts, but as we also said, if we have to go to the well of our being again, we will."
Donation of Contributions if action is successful of costs that are recovered to charity.
We are confident that this action will succeed, but of course need financial help from you to make it succeed. Whilst to date a lot of the work is been carried out Pro Bono (free) by the families some of whose members work in the legal profession, a solicitor and barristers are being instructed formally, with the application issued shortly. It is anticipated that there will be a number of hearings.
Costs that are recovered will be either returned or donated to the following charities, and we will contact you at the relevant point in time for your direction.
The families' main motivation is to protect society from these appalling failings and this action will help to do that and your support will too. It is important to remember it is also about the establishment of fundamental European rights, and this includes of course, as well as the Irish victims, 42 French and one UK citizen who died in Irish jurisdiction at their place of work, whose fundamental Right to Life has been breached by Ireland. The fundamental rights of Irish citizens, and those who come to work in Ireland, must be respected by the Irish State.
If you are able to make a donation we thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts and thank everyone in the Co Cork and Irish community and internationally who expressed their heartfelt kindness to us in commemorating our beloved family members who died in atrocious circumstances, at the 40th Anniversary in Bantry in January.
In order to understand more please see the Speech for the families in St Finbarr's Church Bantry on 08th January 2019 at the 40th Commemoration which is available here . Clear representations were made to the Irish Government, also previously and subsequently on several occasions, but they have been ignored.
In order to understand the effect of this tragedy on the Irish and French relatives and the lack of conclusion following the Disaster please see this 2017 Irish National Broadcast Station RTE's 'Scannal' programme .
Please also see the video of the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron’s apology to the Hillsborough victims' families in September 2012 here following the findings of the Independent Panel's Report into the disaster in 2012.
Please also note that in 2019 the former Secretary of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, responsible for safety measures has been convicted. There is a direct analogy between what happened in Hillsborough and at Whiddy Island because of similar safety failures on behalf of each State. The safety failures of the Whiddy Island Oil Terminal operator were clearly set out in Mr Justice Declan Costello’s Whiddy Island Tribunal Report which is available in full here.