Varadkar promises changes to 999 response system

Minister stands by official inquiry into ‘Tit Bonhomme’ sinking

The Tit Bonhomme, which sank last year near the mouth of Glandore Harbour in Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mac Sweeney/Provision

The Tit Bonhomme, which sank last year near the mouth of Glandore Harbour in Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mac Sweeney/Provision


Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has promised a change to the existing system of responding to 999 emergency telephone calls in marine incidents.

However, Mr Varadkar said he stood by the conclusion of the official inquiry into the 2012 sinking of the trawler Tit Bonhomme off west Cork.

Under the new system, relay of emergency calls to the key services, including the Irish Coast Guard, will be expedited as one of a number of measures considered by the Department of Communications and the contractor for the service, BT Ireland.

Mr Varadkar was responding to concerns raised by Caitlín Uí Aodha, widow of Tit Bonhomme skipper Michael Hayes, at a meeting with him in Union Hall, Co Cork, last month. Ms Uí Aodha has taken issue with the findings of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) report which had identified fatigue as a key factor in the sinking, and is also concerned about the emergency service response, including the handling of the first of two 999 emergency calls from the vessel – which was relayed to Bandon Garda station.

Glandore Harbour

Her husband Michael Hayes (52) from Helvick Head in Co Waterford and four of his five crew, Kevin Kershaw (21) from Clonakilty, Co Cork, and Egyptians Wael Mohamed (35), Attiy Shaban (26) and Saied Alieldin (22) died after their vessel hit Adam’s Island at the mouth of Glandore harbour on January 15th, 2012.

In a letter to Ms Uí Aodha, Mr Varadkar said he agreed there were “concerns” about the manner in which the first 999 emergency telephone call was dealt with.

The two calls were received by ECAS, the Emergency Call Answering Service, which is run by BT Ireland from three centres in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, Navan, Co Meath, and Dublin. “In light of this experience, the [Irish] Coast Guard has had discussions with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and BT and changes to the existing ECAS regime will take place,”Mr Vardkar said.

Information technology changes are also underway to provide for “more efficient transfer of information from the central operators”, he said.

Mr Varadkar said in his letter he was satisfied the operator of the second 999 call and the Irish Coast Guard acted “promptly”, and noted it was “very unfortunate” that the ship’s radio equipment, which would have been picked up directly by Coast Guard radio stations, was not used.

Mobile telephone calls from sea “are by their very nature . . . not reliable”, he noted.

As regards the Marine Casualty Investigations Board inquiry, Mr Varadkar said it was a statutorily independent body and “not one in which I have any functional role, other than to appoint three of the five board members”.

However, he said he had made inquiries with the board and was informed the apparent contradiction in evidence to the inquest was discussed at a meeting on June 27th last, and it was concluded there was “no new relevant evidence” and “no basis to change the report”.

Appeal for funds

Ms Uí Aodha told The Irish Times yesterday she was still considering Mr Varadkar’s letter.

Ms Uí Aodha said the Irish South and East Fish Producers’ Organisation had received a wonderful response from owners of fishing vessels around the coastline to an appeal for funds for the families of the three Bolger brothers from Passage East, who drowned off Co Waterford in June. A fundraiser for the families is due to be held this Friday, August 16th, at Kilcohan Park Greyhound Stadium in Co Waterford.