Wicklow councillors clash over fire deaths inquest

Councillors vote not to debate events at inquest into deaths of Bray firefighters after fractious meeting

Wicklow county councillors voted yesterday not to debate events at the inquest into the deaths of two Bray firefighters after a fractious and bad tempered meeting.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors united to support a motion from the cathaoirleach, Cllr Jimmy O'Shaughnessy of Labour, to postpone any such debate until the inquest, due to resume on May 1st, had concluded. One of those supporting the motion, Cllr Irene Winters of Fine Gael had earlier joined calls for the debate.

The council took its decision, after 38 minutes and two adjournments, by 11 votes to seven. Those voting against the motion were all members of the Labour Party or Independents. Six councillors were absent.

The vote was taken after legal advice was read into the record. This came from Luán Ó Braonáin, SC, who is appearing for Wicklow County Council at the Dublin Coroner's Court inquest into the deaths of the two fire fighters, Brian Murray (46) and Mark O'Shaughnessy (25) on September 26th, 2007.


At the inquest on March 6th, Mr Ó Braonáin was questioning an expert witness for the council, fire safety engineer Michael Slattery of Michael Slattery Associates, who was giving evidence about a tin can which at one time may have contained flammable liquid, that Mr Slattery said he photographed at the fire scene at a disused factory in Bray, Co Wicklow, the day after the blaze.

In a report for the council, Mr Slattery concluded there was “a significant probability” that this can, which he wrote contained “approx 0.5 gallons of highly flammable liquid”, was “a direct cause of the death” of the two fire fighters. During his evidence to the inquest, Mr Slattery showed photographs contained in his report, which he said he took on September 27th, 2007, showing the tin can at the fire scene in the aftermath of the blaze.

At the inquest, however, Det Gda Maurice Hickey, who led the police investigation into the fire, which was carried out alongside a Health and Safety Authority investigation, produced a Garda forensic photograph of the same spot, which he said was taken on the 26th and in which no tin can could be seen.

The development prompted the coroner, Dr Brian Farrell, to adjourn proceedings. The inquest will resume on May 1st with the matter of the can the first issue to be addressed.

Location of can

When councillors met yesterday, an opinion from Mr Ó Braonáin was circulated and read in full into the record. In his opinion, which was contained in his letter to the council’s solicitors, Mr Ó Braonáin said that between now and May 1st, the matter of the can and its whereabouts on the 26th and 27th would be examined.

"A deal of work is to be done in the interim," wrote Mr Ó Braonáin, "to address the issue raised by Gda Hickey, in accordance with the coroner's direction. Preliminary work has already been done with regard to the locations of the canister on 26 and 27 September 2006 [sic] and appropriate avenues of enquiry are being undertaken. Ultimately, it seems to me that the Garda and the HSA forensic examinations of the scene will not be capable of being credibly described as 'full'. " (Mr Ó Braonáin's emphasis).

Earlier in his opinion, Mr Ó Braonáin referred to the “sudden intervention by Gda Hickey” and how it was “vital” that the inquest proceeded to examine what had been raised by his photograph “without interference or the appearance of interference from any of the parties participating in the proceedings, other than through the procedures of the inquest itself”.

Mr Ó Braonáin also criticised reporting of the inquest by The Irish Times , which he asserted was "unfair and inaccurate with notable omissions of relevant facts and disclosures". His opinion did not specify what these were.

After the opinion was read at the meeting, several councillors expressed their anger. The cathaoirleach urged that the meeting adjourn in light of Mr Ó Braonáin’s opinion.

Cllr John Brady of Sinn Féin, who has been challenging the council over the deaths of the two men since they perished in the blaze in 2007, dismissed Mr Ó Braonáin's opinion as "biased". He accused him of "having a pop" at a national newspaper for covering accurately what had come out in both the criminal courts and in the coroner's court" and of "trying to discredit both the gardaí and the HSA".

Independent councillor Tom Cullen was also critical. "In all my years in public life, I have never seen such an outrageous attack on the integrity of the gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority than has just been presented," he said.

Heated exchanges

Amid heated exchanges, Cllr O’Shaughnessy adjourned for 10 minutes to allow Mr Ó Braonáin’s opinion to be considered.

When the meeting resumed, Mr Brady, who was present for Gda Hickey’s intervention at the inquest, argued there was no reason councillors could not discuss matters that had been presented to the coroner’s court.

He was supported by Cllr Barry Nevin, who accused Mr Ó Braonáin of "making very serious allegations about the integrity of the Garda forensic office and the HSA investigation".

Further heated discussion ensued with the cathaoirleach saying he was not trying to muzzle discussion but wanted to ensure that both he and the members were covered. If members voted for a debate, he would respect that, but he proposed an adjournment, which was seconded by Fianna Fáil councillor Pat Vance.

There was a further adjournment during which councillors conferred. After they returned, Mr O’Shaughnessy said he would ensure a full debate after the conclusion of the inquest and before the local elections in June.

After further exchanges and claims that democracy was being denied, the council voted. Before councillors left the chamber, Mr Brady said he felt embarrassed for the families of the two fire fighters, several of whom were in the chamber.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times