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Toxic working environment at Coast Guard, claim Clare TDs

A TOXIC culture of bullying faces volunteers with the Irish Coastguard, two Clare TDs have claimed in the wake of the decision last week to stand down the Doolin unit.

Six members of the north Clare unit resigned early last week, causing the unit to be benched.

One source that is close to the Doolin Coastguard said that claims of “bullying and harassment” that led to the departure of the six volunteers from the unit was not caused by the 12 remaining members.

Speaking in the Dáil, independent Michael McNamara said, “We need to get the Doolin Coast Guard unit reinstated but we need to address the issues that led us to where we are because the reality is there is a toxic working environment in the Coast Guard station in Doolin and there has been for some time.

“Unfortunately it is not unique to Doolin; it exists the length and breadth of this country. There is a lack of confidence in the most senior management in the Irish Coast Guard on behalf of the rank and file.”

“They feel nobody has their back and they have no representative body, so if they speak out, they will be singled out for disciplinary measures where they will be accompanied by another volunteer.

“I appreciate there was an attempt to establish a representative body for them but the vast majority of those in it are former members rather than current members.”

He urged Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton to examine the situation very closely, and to listen to the rank and file of the Coast Guard.

“It is a morass and we will not solve it tonight but the Minister of State needs to take a long look at it. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, spoke about visiting Doolin and I was there myself when its lovely new shining Coast Guard station was opened.

The officer in charge there was Mattie Shannon, a man who gave his lifetime to the Irish Coast Guard in Doolin. He left the Irish Coast Guard but the Minister of State should talk to him and ask him why he left.

“She should also talk to the many others who left the Doolin Coast Guard unit one by one. People of that sort of dedication do not leave unless there is something badly wrong.

“I ask the Minister of State not to talk to the head of the Irish Coast Guard. The head of the Irish Coast Guard will tell her a story but it will not be one that will be recounted by the rank and file on the ground.”

Deputy Carey echoed his views about bullying within the service.

“This is an evolving situation in Doolin which has resulted in six volunteers resigning earlier this week. These resignations have taken place amid claims of bullying and harassment in the service.

“I have serious concerns about the standing down of the service and the circumstances in which this happened. We have hard-working volunteers in Doolin and throughout the Irish Coast Guard, but unfortunately they are not being listened to.

“A culture of bullying and harassment has developed within the Irish Coast Guard that has been left to evolve without check and that is desperately disappointing.”

He asked that “an independent and competent person” be appointed to examine the situation at Doolin.

Minister Naughton has since acceded to the request to appoint a mediator.

“We will not have a coast guard service in the future if we do not address the issues that have emerged in Doolin. There are 12 volunteers in Doolin who are more than capable of carrying out tasks such as cliff rescue, ambulance assistance and search. They should be allowed to continue with that work and be reinstated as a matter of urgency.

“I ask that the Minister of State take my views and those of Deputy McNamara and other Oireachtas Members across County Clare on board and that we get to work on this straight away,” the Clarecastle-based TD added.

Later in the debate, Deputy McNamara reiterated that there is a very negative atmosphere within the organisation.

“The culture within the Coast Guard is if one speaks out for one’s fellow volunteers, one is targeted. One is silenced. It is toxic and the Coast Guard will not survive that unless the Minister of State, at a political level, takes it in hand.

“There is no confidence in the most senior management among the volunteers. That is what they are – volunteers who risk their lives to try to protect others. We should never forget that. They deserve a lot better than what they are getting at present.”

Deputy Carey said that even before the Doolin situation emerged, Coastguard volunteers were clearly very unhappy.

“I attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association in Kilkee a couple of weeks ago.

“There were current and former members of the Coast Guard – all volunteers from Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Galway and Clare – and they spoke openly about the challenges they face every day in terms of widespread harassment and bullying within the service.

“One has to ask the question of why so many people are leaving the service. Morale is at an all-time low. Volunteers are leaving. They are not being listened to. They are not being engaged with in a proper manner by management on high.”

He called for a review of Doolin and the wider service.

“There is a need for a root-and-branch review of the Coast Guard service in terms of management and volunteers, and how they work together. The Minister of State must commit to that.

He also called on her to reinstate “that vital service that they have delivered so well over many years”.

Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.