A special meeting of Wicklow County Council is to be held tomorrow to discuss the inquest into the 2007 deaths of two Bray firefighters, at which evidence the council was relying upon was dramatically undermined last week.
It was unclear last night whether the county manager, Eddie Sheehy, would be in attendance. He was reported earlier this week to be going on a 10-day St Patrick's Day official trip to America.
At the inquest into the firefighters' deaths, the council was advancing the hypothesis that a tin can, which may at one time have contained flammable liquid, could have fuelled a fireball that allegedly engulfed the two firefighters, Brian Murray (46) and Mark O'Shaughnessy (25).
It was also suggested at an earlier stage of the inquest that one of them could have contributed to the alleged fireball by standing on the can.
As the council's main expert witnesses, Michael Slattery, was giving evidence last Thursday, based on photographs of the can that he took on September 27th, 2007, the day after the fatal fire, Det Garda Maurice Hickey, who led the police investigation into it, produced a Garda forensic photograph of precisely the same location.
He said it was taken on the 26th, immediately after the fire had been extinguished, and no tin can was visible in the Garda picture.
His interjection prompted the coroner, Dr Brian Farrell, to adjourn proceedings early.
Eight Wicklow councillors have now forced a meeting of the council, which will be held in the council chamber at 11am tomorrow to discuss the implications.
Their instruction that a meeting be held, which required a minimum of five of the 24 councillors to support it, states that it is to "discuss and decide on issues relating to information disclosed at the coroner's inquest into the deaths of Brian Murray and Mark O'Shaughnessy, who were employees of Wicklow County Council, and information published in The Irish Times on Friday 7th March relating to the above matter".
The move was initiated by ex-Labour Party independent councillor Barry Nevin, who described what happened at the inquest as "the strangest thing I have ever seen".
"We all have a responsibility to ask questions," Mr Nevin said yesterday. "We have to know why the council pleaded guilty in the Criminal Court to health and safety and training breaches, but is arguing the opposite at the inquest."
Other councillors – Independents Tom Fortune (formerly Labour Party), Thomas Cullen and Christopher Fox; Conal Kavanagh and Nicky Kelly of Labour; John Brady of Sinn Féin; and Irene Winters of Fine Gael – supported his call.
Mr Fortune said yesterday he was “alarmed” at the implications of what happened at the inquest.
“There has been a reliance [by council officials] on Mr Slattery up to now. When he presented his report to the county council last autumn, the can was said to be the central problem with the death of the two firefighters and now there’s a huge question mark over that.”
Mr Brady, who has taken a strong interest in the case of the firefighters, said Mr Slattery’s report was now under question. He said “serious questions” had been raised and a Garda investigation was needed.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Mr Brady said he would be renewing his call for Mr Sheehy to resign. “He has ultimate responsibility for the fire service,” he maintained.
Wicklow County Council statement:
Wicklow County Council, in a statement to The Irish Times last night, said:
“As you are aware, the coroner has adjourned the inquest until Thursday 1st May with a view to clarifying the position during the adjournment period. The inquest is in the middle of hearing ongoing evidence. Your report of the proceedings before the inquest last Thursday was quite unfair and inaccurate, with remarkable omissions of relevant facts and disclosures.
“Quite apart from anything else, it seems entirely wrong to present as a fact that the canister of Granyte was “absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire” when you do not have the full facts as to its location or locations on 26 September and/or 27 September 2007. These facts are and will be matters for the inquest.
The Murray family in their submissions to the coroner in January submitted that a significant amount of ill-informed rumour, suspicion and public concern has been expressed regarding the deaths of the late Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy. One of the functions of the inquest is to allay such rumours or suspicions and the council will continue to seek to assist the coroner and the jury in doing so when the inquest resumes.”
In response to questions from The Irish Times about attendance at St Patrick’s Day events in the US, the council said:
“St Patrick’s Day events in the USA provide a unique opportunity to showcase Co Wicklow at a time when there is very considerable goodwill towards Ireland.
“One elected member and one official will represent Wicklow County Council in Washington and New York this year. They will build on established contacts and promote the county as a great business location and wonderful tourist destination.
“You will be aware that county Wicklow achieved first place (and a gold medal ) in the 2012 LivCom Competition as the most livable community in the world with a population of less than 150,000. Greystones is a previous first Place ( and gold medal ) winner in the small towns category of this prestigious international competition.
“The Wicklow delegation will meet development agencies, engage with Wicklow diaspora, participate in/ review parades and meet civic dignitaries, etc.”