PRESSURE is growing on Transport Minister Eamon Ryan to conduct an independent investigation into the reasons that resulted in the suspension of Doolin Coast Guard amid claims of “severe bullying and harassment” in the service, writes Dan Danaher.
Doolin Coast Guard can no longer provide marine cover and medical assistance to casualties that get into difficulty in inaccessible locations from South Galway to Doonbeg after it was controversially stood down.
Minister Ryan has been warned by Senator Martin Conway that “lives are being put at risk” over the “unacceptable decision” to stand down the unit, despite the expertise and experience of 12 remaining members.
There has already been an emergency callout in the area, on Wednesday night, when the rescue helicopter 115 was tasked to a search in the north Clare area. That search resumed Thursday with the Kilkee unit tasked to assist.
I wonder if the family of this woman are happy with the “eggs you’re breaking in order to make your omelette”, Eugene Clonan.
— Mark Carney (@markcarney123) November 4, 2021
It emerged this week that six volunteers at Doolin have resigned including the unit’s Officer in Charge (OiC). Questions are being asked why the unit, which has a cliff climbing, boat and land search team, couldn’t continue in some capacity with the remaining members.
The Irish Coast Guard has outlined the team on Inis Oírr in the Aran Islands, which is managed by Doolin Coast Guard, will remain operational.
Concern about issues raised by Senator Martin Conway and Senator Gerard Craughwell was expressed by Senator Regina Doherty during a Seanad debate on Tuesday.
Senator Doherty acknowledged Senator Craughwell spoke about the crisis in the Coast Guard and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports and the feeling that there are certain anomalies in Government spending around the provision of services.
“More important are the allegations of bullying and harassment that have led to volunteers in Doolin standing down. That is not a tenable situation and I will contact the minister to see where we will go with that.”
Having attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association in Kilkee, Senator Craughwell warned “things have deteriorated to a point where, maybe this evening, we will have no volunteers in Doolin”.
Senator Craughwell also spoke about the circumstances that led to the death of Caitríona Lucas (41) who was the first Coast Guard member to lose their life while on duty on September 12, 2016.
“Something that came to light when we attended that meeting was that a couple of weeks before Caitríona Lucas lost her life in West Clare, the Coast Guard was warned that the way things were going the next time it visited there it would be for a funeral. Sure enough, a few weeks later it was a funeral.”
“It looks very much like we will have no Coast Guard volunteers right along the west coast, from Clare to Kerry, at the rate things are going.
“Allegations are being made there is severe bullying and harassment going on within the service. The allegations are that if one raises an issue of concern, one will be greeted with thanks for one’s interest and concern. Some days later a senior officer will arrive at one’s house and tell one one’s services are no longer required.
“This is dividing communities. Most of us here come from rural areas and we know how closely knit communities are. In particular, coastal communities are extremely closely knit, and where one gets an organisation that is starting to split down the middle, there are the insiders and the outsiders. It is dividing coastal communities. It is really serious.”
Senator Craughwell urged Minister Ryan to act immediately to save the service.
“There will not be a service at the rate things are going in a couple of weeks’ time. This is frightening for the people in western coastal areas who depend on this service. We have many cliffs and some dangerous seas.”
Senator Conway stressed Doolin Coast Guard is one of the busiest coast guard units in this country, carrying out 60 to 70 recovery and rescue missions every year.
“I also want to know what provisions are being made to ensure that if there is an accident off the Clare coast tomorrow or over the weekend, there are measures and appropriate equipment in place to deal with it.”
Speaking to the Clare Champion, Senator Conway said it wasn’t necessary to stand the unit down. He called on Minister Ryan to issue an independent investigation, provide reassurances about the current level of coast guard cover and provide a definite timeline for the reinstatement of the unit.
“While I have the height of respect for the work carried out by the Aran Islands team, I believe the current coastguard cover is inadequate.
“Lives are at risk because Doolin Coast Guard is no longer operational, which is not acceptable. The model of part-time retained paid firefighters should be replicated for the coastguard service.”
Senator Doherty pledged she would write to Minister Ryan about the issues raised by the senators.
A source close to the coastguard described the situation as “extremely serious”.
The Clare Champion understands that issues affecting the Doolin Coast Guard were allegedly not addressed on a collective basis.
Members had hoped that the national Coast Guard would have brought all parties together on a collective basis to address a series of issues.
Instead, the Irish Coast Guard brought in members individually a few months ago for an interview with four people, which individuals felt uncomfortable with.
Members were disappointed that their concerns were not addressed collectively.
Approximately half of the call outs attended by the unit in recent years were medical assistance and ambulance assist calls.
A large number of these would have involved injuries to tourists walking near the Cliffs of Moher after they tripped or fallen.
The unit’s intervention was vital as they could help casualties in areas that were inaccessible for HSE personnel to get the body down from difficult terrain.
The last call out Doolin Coast Guard completed was for a person in North Clare who was badly injured.
Due to the fact that no ambulance was able to come immediately, members of the team spent four hours attending to the casualty’s medical needs. This can no longer be done while the unit is stood down. Pre-Covid, the unit completed in the region of 25 medical assistance calls.
In July 2019, Senator Conway called for the establishment of a new structure under the auspices of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport where Coast Guard volunteers who were not satisfied with the manner in which their grievances were dealt with could appeal to an independent body headed up by a retired High Court judge.
This body would also be tasked with recommending improved practices in the Coast Guard.
Transport Minister Shane Ross recalled he had a “moving meeting” with Bernard Lucas, the widower of Caitríona Lucas who died in a tragedy.
Minister Ross said there were only three grievance cases, representing less than 0.5% of the total volunteer cadre.
In 2019, the Coastguard completed a review of the code. It includes sections on performance management, disciplinary procedure and a positive volunteering environment. This review was conducted with independent expert input from a human resources consultancy to ensure that the Coast Guard’s processes were fair and fit for purpose for an organisation of its type.
The review also involved a consultation process with the volunteers which was managed through the coastal unit advisory group.
This group is a representative structure for the volunteers made up of six members elected by the units independently of full-time staff in the Coast Guard.
The HR consultants recommended various modifications and a revised code was published in late 2018. These independent experts confirmed that the code represented good practice, particularly given the voluntary nature of those involved.
“Volunteers who are unhappy in their role or have a grievance they wish to discuss may approach their designated line manager or where they do not wish to go that route, they can escalate their grievance to their coastal unit sectoral manager.
“These are full-time staff in the Coast Guard. The matter is dealt with in a private manner and in line with the Coast Guard’s human resources standards.”