Minister for Transport told families of those who died in the 2017 Rescue 116 helicopter crash that his Department will pay legal costs incurred for a review of the crash.
Eamon Ryan expressed regret to the families of the Irish Coast Guard members for the implication that they might have to pay legal costs for a review of the crash.
Four people, Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Mark Duffy, winchman Ciarán Smith along and winch operator Paul Ormsby died when their search and rescue helicopter crashed at Blackrock Island, 13km west of Blacksod, off the coast of Mayo in March 2017.
A review board was set up by Mr Ryan's predecessor Shane Ross to look into a previous Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) draft report on the tragedy.
The review was established at the behest of the helicopter operator CHC Ireland, who challenged the report’s conclusions and findings .
The families of three of the four deceased crew, Fitzpatrick, Duffy and Smith, hired legal counsel to represent them at the board. Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty told the Dáil on Thursday that an RTE Investigates report suggested the families may face fees running into hundreds of thousands of euro.
In a statement on Thursday evening Mr Ryan said he wrote to the family on Thursday to let them know that “the Department of Transport will cover their reasonable legal expenses incurred as a result of the review into the accident in which their loved ones lost their lives”.
Mr Ryan said the families of the crew did not ask for the review and were “placed in a position of having to contribute to a complex process to ensure their loved ones’ interests were fully represented”.
He explained that his department argued before the review board that it did not have authority to make an order on costs, this was done because of the broader implications that such a ruling might have in future.
“This was never intended to imply a reluctance to pay these costs, and the additional stress this may have caused is regretted,” Mr Ryan added.
It follows an intervention by the chairman of the review board, Patrick McCann SC, who suggested that the Department of Transport cover the costs involved.
“I was happy to accept this recommendation and asked my officials to work on a mechanism to resolve the issue,” Mr Ryan stated.
Mr Ryan said he was also conscious families will shortly receive the final report of the investigation into the accident “a moment which is bound to be difficult for all concerned”.
In the Dáil earlier Mr Ryan rejected claims his department fought against paying legal fees for the families, saying . “it would be scandalous if we were fighting against such costs (being paid) but it’s not true”.
He insisted that “at no stage did our department strenuously fight against that” against the application for costs.
Mr Ryan was responding to Mr Doherty who said the families hired legal representatives "to represent them at the board because they had a fear that there would be an effort to assign blame for the accident to their loved ones".
Mr Doherty said the Department strongly opposed the families’ legal costs and he told Mr Ryan “your officials took the most callous approach in dealing with this issue and fought the families at the review board”.
“It’s a horrendous way to treat the families of people who died in the line of duty trying to save others.”
He said that “members of the families talk about the hurt that they have being dragged into a process, not of their making…….and that your department strongly objected to the costs being covered.”