O'Reilly criticises rejection of Lost at Sea report


OMBUDSMAN AND Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has harshly criticised the Government for “acting as the judge in its own case” following the rejection of her report on the Lost at Sea scheme by an all-party committee of the Oireachtas.

Ms O’Reilly, in a statement issued last night, said she was disappointed at the majority decision of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries to reject the findings of her report.

The committee voted 9-6 against adopting the report after Fianna Fáil applied the whip to its members, who comprise a majority of the committee.

Ms O’Reilly said yesterday that it appeared to her the view of the committee was not based on an objective or critical analysis but on the basis of the party whip system.

Ms O’Reilly’s investigation had concluded there were administrative flaws in the scheme which was designed to help families who lost vessels and family members at sea to return to fishing.

Her report recommended that a Donegal family, the Byrnes, be compensated some €250,000.

The findings were rejected by the Department of Agriculture, only the second time in 26 years that an ombudsman’s report had been rejected.

That finding was upheld by the committee last week, following a series of public hearings on the report earlier this year.

“The implication of the committee’s decision is that the Government is allowed be the judge in its own case.

“Under the party whip system, the Government has effective control of the Dáil and Seanad, where it insists on using the whip in relation to an ombudsman recommendation made, in part, against a former member of the government,” she said.

The former member of Government to whom Ms O’Reilly referred was then minister for the marine Frank Fahey who initiated the scheme.

Part of the reason it attracted controversy was because two of the six successful applicants were from Mr Fahey’s constituency of Galway West.

He maintained in hearings that no monetary compensation was ever given to any of the successful families. He also contended that Ms O’Reilly’s office fundamentally misunderstood the basis and rationale of the scheme.

Mr Fahey was not available for comment last night.

In a lengthy statement, the ombudsman said she was disappointed for the Byrne family and also accepted that she had exhausted all avenues open to her.

“I remain convinced as to the merits of the case and that the family deserved to be compensated as a result of the adverse effect they suffered from actions which, in my view, amounted to maladministration,” she said.

She also said that the handling of this present case should prompt a wider public and political debate on the relationship between the ombudsman and parliament.

She asserted that the chain of independence envisaged by the Oireachtas when it enacted the Ombudsman Act 1980 had been “broken” in this case.

“That can only be to the detriment of members of the public who have received unfair treatment at the hands of public bodies.”

One Fianna Fáil TD who is familiar with the case, but did not wish to be named, responded last night by saying that Ms O’Reilly seemed to be telling the Oireachtas how it should be doing its business.