Adjournment Matters. - Inspection of Ferries.

Wednesday, 24 March 1993

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 135 No. 8

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[909]Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  A Leas-Chathaoirligh, I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for the courtesy of attending to respond to my motion.

At this stage the basic facts of the Celtic Pride ferry tragedy are very well known. The Celtic Pride was in operation last year on the Cork-Swansea ferry route. On the morning of 12 August two children, Catherine and James Tomlins, were found dead in their cabin just before the vessel arrived in Cork and last month the Department of the Marine published the report into the investigation of that tragedy. From this it is clear beyond any doubt that the children were overcome by the toxic fumes from the ship's sewerage system which reached them through the toilet adjoining the cabin in which they slept. This happened because, according to the report, the ship's sewerage system was badly designed and badly maintained. These deaths happened following repeated complaints by previous passengers about unpleasant smells and inefficient clearance of the flushing system on board ship.

What happens next in regard to this case? The investigation itself was excellent as far as it went and clearly its sole purpose was to establish the cause of the tragedy. It has done this very clearly and my only quarrel with the report is that it took six months to complete and given the restricted nature of the investigation, six months seems an excessively long time to have to wait for a report. However, the restricted nature of the investigation immediately highlights the need to go further.

We now know beyond all doubt what caused the deaths of those two children. What we do not know is, who is to blame? We need to know because we are talking about human lives. These two innocent children were returning from a family summer holiday on the Continent. Their deaths need not have happened; their deaths could have been foreseen. In the chilling words of the Department's report, which leap out at us from the [910] pages, this was “an accident waiting to happen”.

It appears wrong that the only function of the Department of the Marine in this matter is to ascertain the cause. Not so long ago the British ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise sank and there was a fullscale public inquiry which did not shrink from attributing blame. If the Department of the Marine does not have the same powers should we not move quickly to ensure that it gets them? Alternatively, if it has those powers, why were they not used in this case? This was the immediate concern of the public.

I stress that in seeking to attribute blame, people are not seeking retribution. The existence of a clear and effective mechanism for establishing blame is a very important part of the system for ensuring future safety on all our sea routes. People who are responsible for the safety of passengers should be in no doubt whatever that they will be brought to account if they fail that trust, and they will be brought to account swiftly.

Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about the progress of the Garda investigation into this matter, if indeed there is any progress to report at this time. I hope he will not tell us that there are difficulties because of the clash of legal jurisdiction in this matter, and I certainly hope he will not say that it is up to the parents of the children to seek civil redress. This is a matter of national importance and people affected by such a tragedy are entitled to feel that the State will protect and vindicate their personal interests. However, even when our minds are put at rest about that aspect of this case there are further matters of imporance flowing from this investigation and from this report.

What this tragedy has revealed is that there is an enormous gap in the regulations governing the safety of vessels at sea. The sewerage system which caused the deaths of these children did not, and still does not, fall within the scope of the licensing system for ships. This ship was certified as safe because the marine legislation does not cover the sewerage [911] system. That fact will come as a profound shock to people who travel on ships because I am sure they thought they were better protected than that. In this context I commend the action the Department took in the wake of the accident in immediately alerting the EC and the international maritime authorities to the need to include the sewerage system in the design and operation standards of all sea-going vessels. I also commend the recommendations made in the report for further action in that area.

While I commend that response, I have to say it is hardly adequate. We are now shutting that stable door but other stable doors are still open. We do not know yet what other accidents are waiting to happen. Are we only to discover these hazards when tragedies happen such as that which befell the Tomlins children? Surely we cannot leave this matter there.

I suggest the need — and I see it as highly urgent — to set up a system of regular inspection of ferries that would go beyond existing statutory inspections. That would be pro-active and comprehensive; pro-active in the sense that it would take the initiative to prevent accidents even of a type that had never happended before, and comprehensive in that it would go beyond the letter of the present law to cover any possibility of danger to passengers no matter what the source. The aim of such a pro-active and comprehensive system of inspection should be to identify at the earliest possible stage and to eliminate all potential causes of tragic accidents.

We owe it, first, to the memory of the Tomlins children to do so and second to the travelling public, who are entitled to expect the State to guard their interest effectively in such matters and third, we owe it to our tourism industry, which depends crucially on access routes to this island. Irish tourism already suffers from the handicap that travel to Ireland is difficult and expensive for visitors and has no need of any shadow cast over the safety of the journey to Ireland. These considerations oblige us to go that extra [912] mile and if this means leading the maritime world in matters of safety, so be it. There could hardly be a better reason to do so.

Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. G. O'Sullivan): Information on Gerry O'Sullivan  Zoom on Gerry O'Sullivan  I welcome the courtesy extended to me by Senator Quinn when he raised this matter on the Adjournment.

I would like to outline for the Senator the steps taken following this tragic occurrence and on foot of the Department's investigation.

A preliminary examination of the vessel by marine surveyors of the Department immediately following the accident revealed that the vessel's sewerage system was the cause of the accident. Immediate modifications were effected and some days later the vessel was taken out of service to allow permanent technical modification to be carried out. These modifications involved, inter alia, the provision of two new permanent sewage vent pipes, the cleaning of all sewage tanks, modifications to the internal structure of the tanks and the fitting of new aeration systems to ensure a positive aerobic operation of the system.

All ferry companies operating into Ireland were immediately requested to review and report on the sewage systems on their vessels in line with detailed guidelines and to review the operational procedures for crews in the detection of, and response to, smells and gasses. The special meeting of the National Ferry Safety Committee, on which all the ferry companies are represented, was convened to review the accident and the lessons to be learned from it. The ferry companies indicated that the sewage systems on their vessels were safe. Subsequently, marine surveyors of the Department conducted a thorough examination of the sewage systems on the vessels. No major deficiencies or problems were identified. No trace of lethal gas could be detected on any vessel. The examination of sewage systems on board passenger ferries is now an ongoing feature of inspections carried out by the Department's marine surveyors.

[913] We also took immediate action at international level by urgently requesting the International Maritime Organisation, last October, to introduce requirements for the standards of design, construction and the operation of sewage systems on ships and for periodic inspection of such systems. The IMO accepted the need for standards in relation to the design and construction of sewage systems. The matter is now being pursued through a specialist IMO sub-committee on ship design and equipment. The Deputy Chief Surveyor of the Department of the Marine is taking the lead role at that forum in co-ordinating and drawing up the necessary requirements. I went to London recently and met the secretary general of the IMO in order to emphasise to him the need for international regulation in this regard. I am glad to say he assured me of his full support. I would also like to put on the record the full support that we have got from the United States maritime organisation who fully backed the Irish stand on this issue. The Department is also reinforcing safety and checking guidelines for sewage systems by a further detailed Marine Notice to all shipping interests. Those are the specific measures taken on foot of the Celtic Pride tragedy. In addition, ferries serving Irish ports are comprehensively and regularly inspected for compliance with a wide range of safety standards. Irish registered passenger vessels undergo annual inspections for the renewal of their Passenger and Safety Certificates. The vessels are required to be equipped, maintained and operated to the highest international standards and, in particular, to those laid down in the International Maritime Organisation's Safety of Life at Sea Convention. These standards are under constant review by the IMO and we will continue to press for further strengthening of standards both at EC and IMO level.

Foreign registered passenger vessels operating from Irish ports are also inspected at least once a year to ensure compliance with all safety requirements, both domestic and international. The International Agreement on Port State [914] Control, to which Ireland is a party, provide for regular inspections of all foreign registered vessels to ensure that ships comply with international safety standards.

I am in full agreement with the Senator that when it comes to safety we have an obligation to go that extra mile and it is precisely for this reason that the National Ferry Safety Committee was set up. This expert technical committee has the job of reviewing all aspects of safety procedures and standards regularly and critically and of advising on improvements. The Ferry Users' Forum set up to deal with passenger complaints about safety adds a further important dimension to the review systems now in place and which are, may I point out, unique in international terms.

The procedures and standards introduced following the Celtic Pride tragedy, together with those already in place, are designed to achieve the objective of identification and elimination of all potential causes of tragic accidents. I can assure the Senator that I share his concerns to see this objective met. All necessary additional measures at national level will be taken to reinforce international safety standards.

Although six months may appear to have been a long time for a report when one considers that a report of this nature has to go back to the legal representatives of the other parties involved and given the nature of this tragedy it does not appear excessive.

As Opposition spokesperson for the Marine in the last Dáil I considered it imperative that there would be no delay. When I was appointed Minister of State at the Department of the Marine the publication of that report was my first priority and I am glad to say it was published at the earliest opportunity. I delivered it to the Tomlins family myself and I went to London to make sure that this report would get priority at the IMO. It is now top of the agenda there for further discussion and regulation; regulation is the key word in this.

At present the report is with the Garda authorities for their response. It is not the function of the Department of the [915] Marine to take criminal action. Another Department must look at the report and see whether criminal action is appropriate or whether new legislation is required.

I welcome and share the Senator's concerns [916] and I would welcome any further assistance from him on marine matters.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 25 March 1993.

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