Fahey role in Lost at Sea scheme defended

 

FIANNA FÁIL TD Frank Fahey defended his handling, while minister, of a grant aid scheme for commercial fishermen during heated Dáil exchanges yesterday.

Mr Fahey, who represents Galway West, claimed he had been the target of “false and defamatory” allegations.

“It is interesting to note that a number of the people who qualified for the scheme have lost money on it since then,” he added.

The House was debating the Ombudsman’s report on the Lost at Sea scheme, which was established in 2001 by Mr Fahey when he was minister for the marine. Under the scheme, owners of fishing boats lost at sea could apply for grant aid for a replacement capacity.

The Byrne family from Donegal later complained to Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly after its application was rejected, on the grounds that it was made after the deadline. Ms O’Reilly recommended compensation for the Byrnes.

Mr Fahey said that the report had stated that the appropriate remedy for the adverse effects suffered by the Byrne family was monetary compensation.

“I cannot accept the recommendation that the Byrne family, who did not qualify and should not have qualified for the scheme in the first place, should now be paid financial compensation. “This would be contrary to the most fundamental principles of the scheme.”

Mr Fahey was supported by Minister of State for Agriculture and Fisheries Tony Killeen, who said the Ombudsman was mistaken in her belief that successful applicants under the decommissioning scheme had the option of selling on their vessel, given that the decommissioned vessel had to be scrapped at the owner’s expense and the tonnage could not be sold or otherwise transferred.

“I reiterate that I am of the view that payment in the case investigated is not warranted in the amount specified or or any amount in this case,” he added.

Sinn Féin spokesman Martin Ferris said that many people listening to the debate, and aware of the situation, “will be quite prepared to say they believe that this was political cronyism at its worst”. Mr Fahey said Mr Ferris should withdraw his “false allegation”.

Mr Ferris said that apart from the failure to advertise the scheme more widely, the Ombudsman found that some of those who applied were in fact written to in order to inform them of its existence. “On what basis was it decided to contact those individuals and not others?” he added.

Dinny McGinley (FG, Donegal South-West) said that in plain, political language what happened “has every indication and manifestation of a political stroke, nothing more and nothing less”.

Fine Gael agriculture spokesman Michael Creed said the scheme did benefit a number of individuals, two of whom received 75 per cent of the compensation available and happened to be Mr Fahey’s constituents. He said Mr Fahey should answer questions before an Oireachtas committee on the matter.

Mr Fahey said there was no predetermined amount of fishing boat capacity awarded under the scheme. “The suggestion that was made again today, by Deputy Creed, that 75 per cent of compensation went to two constituents is a ludicrous one,” he added.

Mr Creed insisted that they had received 75 per cent of the tonnage, which had a value.

Labour agriculture spokesman Seán Sherlock said that in rejecting the Ombudsman’s findings, the Government had undermined the confidence of citizens that they could successfully resolve their complaints and severely compromised the independent statutory role vested in the office by the legislature.

Mr Sherlock said that if the House was to conduct its business properly, the report should be referred to the Oireachtas committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It was critical that the Ombudsman be afforded an opportunity to present her findings to that committee, he added.