Campaigners bid for Whiddy Island disaster deaths to be declared ‘unlawful’

Anniversary commemoration hears campaigner criticise Irish, French governments

Seven Irish, one Briton and 42 French died when the Betelguese went on fire at Whiddy Island in Co Cork in 1979 while a Dutch diver died later during the salvage operation to bring the death toll to 51. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times

Seven Irish, one Briton and 42 French died when the Betelguese went on fire at Whiddy Island in Co Cork in 1979 while a Dutch diver died later during the salvage operation to bring the death toll to 51. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times

 

A group representing the relatives of the 51 people who perished in the Betelgeuse Disaster in West Cork 40 years ago have urged people to support them in their campaign to have their loved ones’ deaths declared unlawful.

Vice president of the French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse, Michael Kingston said the group wants the Irish government apologise for its dereliction of duty on safety in relation to the disaster.

Mr Kington’s father, Tim, was among seven Irish, one Briton and 42 French who died when the Betelguese went on fire at Whiddy Island in 1979 while a Dutch diver died later during the salvage operation to bring the death toll to 51.

The Betelgeuse, which was owned by French company, Total SA, was discharging some 114,000 tonnes of crude oil which it had brought from Saudi Arabia when it exploded at the Whiddy Island Terminal owned by Gulf Oil.

High Court action

Speaking at a ceremony at the Betelgeuse Memorial at Pointe du Roselier at Plerin in Brittany to mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster which happened on January 8th, 1979, Mr Kingston was highly critical of the Irish government.

“We told the Irish government last January that if they did not apologise for their scandalous dereliction of duty in relation to safety for allowing Gulf Oil to behave as they did, before and after the disaster, we would take action.

“And last month, I announced that action would be taken in the High Court that will rectify our beloved relatives’ death certificates to ‘unlawful death’ which is their clear right under the European Convention of Human Rights.”

Mr Kingston told the gathering of relatives and supporters that an apology from the Irish government will be “the inevitable result” following on that High Court action which he was confident would succeed.

“The Irish government will also be under an obligation to investigate the unlawful deaths and why the Irish state allowed the terrible decisions about safety reduction that were taken to be taken,” he said.

‘Unavailable’

Mr Kingston said the lives of 42 French citizens along with those of seven Irish and one Briton had been “breached by Ireland” as he urged people to support a GoFundMe page to campaign for the change to their death certificates.

“I urge you to support your compatriots and donate . . . We must always revert to the rule of law when our governments do not respect us,” he said, adding he was keeping a promise he made to victims’ relatives who had since died.

Mr Kingston told the gathering that he had sought a meeting with the French government after failing to receive any response from the Irish government but it seems the French government too was “unavailable”.

“So it is up to me, the son of one of the victims of the disaster, whose death their oil tanker contributed so significantly to, to stand up for the rights of their citizens in their absence,” he said.

“This is what it has come to but that it is what I will do – whatever the case, whatever the failings of the Irish and French governments, they have had their chance to redeem themselves in this matter of shame and it is now too late.”