Oireachtas group rejects Lost at Sea scheme report

 

AN ALL-PARTY Oireachtas committee has rejected the Ombudsman’s report on the Lost at Sea scheme after Fianna Fáil used its majority to vote down its controversial findings.

A private meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday voted by nine to six not to recommend to the Dáil and Seanad that the report by Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly be adopted.

In her findings, Ms O’Reilly concluded that the design and advertising of the scheme was contrary to fair and sound administration.

The scheme, initiated by former minister for the marine Frank Fahey, assisted families who lost their vessels at sea to return to the fishing industry. Successful applicants were entitled to replacement capacity. However, it attracted controversy because two of the successful applicants were constituents of Mr Fahey.

Ms O’Reilly’s investigation came after a complaint from the Byrne family from Donegal, who lost family members in a drowning tragedy.

Their application was received late, but Ms O’Reilly found that the scheme was insufficiently advertised and had other administrative flaws. She recommended that the surviving members of the Byrne family be awarded €250,000 compensation.

However, the report was rejected by the Department of Agriculture, only the second time an Ombudsman’s report had been rejected in 26 years.

Ms O’Reilly made her criticisms of the decision public. After an intervention by the Green Party, the Government agreed to refer it to committee.

Fine Gael committee member Tom Sheahan said yesterday he disagreed vehemently with the committee’s decision and claimed Fianna Fáil had “protected one of its own”.

Labour member Seán Sherlock said the consequence of the vote was that citizens could no longer be assured an Ombudsman’s report would not be rejected by government on an unreasonable basis. “I fear that the politicisation of this report will have serious ramifications for the future viability of the independence of that office,” he said.

But Fianna Fáil committee member Bobby Aylward said it recommended better advertising for such schemes in future, and pointed to what he said were flaws in the report’s findings. He argued that monetary compensation was not appropriate for a non-monetary scheme.

He also said the Byrne family applied very late, some 13 months after the scheme was closed.

Yesterday’s findings followed public hearings before the summer break.

It involved heated exchanges between the Opposition parties and Fianna Fáil. Several allegations were made against Mr Fahey using parliamentary privilege, all of which he strenuously denied.

The former minister insisted that Ms O’Reilly and her investigators misunderstood the scheme. Officials from the Department of Agriculture and Marine shared the same view.

Donegal TD Dr Jim McDaid diverged from his Fianna Fáil colleagues and told the committee the Lost at Sea scheme “stunk to high heaven”.

Last night, a spokesman for the Ombudsman’s office said it had no comment. The Byrne family said that they would need time to study the finding and would then consider their response.