Son of Whiddy Island disaster victim urges law on corporate manslaughter

Michael Kingston’s father died when French oil tanker caught fire in Bantry in 1979

The hulk of the ‘Betelgeuse’ lies at the oil Jetty at Whiddy Island in Co Cork on January 9th, 1979. File photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

The hulk of the ‘Betelgeuse’ lies at the oil Jetty at Whiddy Island in Co Cork on January 9th, 1979. File photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

 

Successive Irish governments have been accused by the son of a victim of the Whiddy Island disaster of treating Irish workers as second-class citizens by failing to introduce an offence of corporate manslaughter.

Sharply critical during an address at a memorial Mass to commemorate the 51 victims, Michael Kingston’s father Tim died when the French oil tanker, Betelgeuse went up in flames at Bantry Bay on January 8th, 1979.

“Our relatives were left to die by a company and management who made a decision to reduce safety and were clearly guilty of death by gross negligence,” said Mr Kingston, who is now a leading London-based maritime lawyer.

However, corporate manslaughter is not an offence in Ireland: “How can successive Irish governments have such little regard for workers? The Law Reform Commission recommended corporate manslaughter in 2005 but Dáil Éireann has not passed any legislation to introduce it.

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“Why is this? Is it because the Government is afraid it would be culpable for its actions, not having learned from the lessons of history? That is an appalling approach because it means the workers of Ireland are second-class citizens,” he told a packed St Finbarr’s Church in Bantry.

Seven Irish died: Tim Kingston, Charlie Brennan, Denis O’Leary, Neilly O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan, Liam Shanahan, David Warner; along with Briton, Mike Harris; the 42 French crew, and Dutch diver Jaap Pols, who died later during the salvage operation.

In an emotional address, Mr Kingston said the relatives had been snubbed by Irish governments, complaining that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, President Michael D Higgins and ministers had been invited to attend, but did not do so.

He said he had written to Mr Varadkar in 2016 and before him to his predecessor, Enda Kenny, and to ministers to highlight Ireland’s failure to implement maritime safety legislation but he had failed to receive any replies.

The Commission of Investigation into the disaster chaired by Mr Justice Declan Costello found that Gulf Oil and its employees had “suppressed the truth” about the events that night, but the Irish government had never acted against it.

“The tribunal established by the government of Ireland showed clearly that Gulf Corporation coached their employees to lie. The chapter, ‘The suppression of the Truth’, clearly shows that. People embarked on a deliberate and co-ordinated collusion to fabricate the truth.”

Comparing the disaster to the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy in England, where the truth was eventually was uncovered, Mr Kingston said Irish governments were guilty of a “dereliction of duty” to the young Irish and French mothers who lost loved ones.