Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and two other former ministers for transport may be able to assist an inquest into the death of an Irish Coast Guard volunteer by answering questions about the State failure to transpose an EU directive on maritime investigations, a preliminary inquest hearing has been told.
Maritime lawyer Michael Kingston said the family of Caitriona Lucas, who was a member of the Doolin unit, were anxious that Mr Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe and Shane Ross give evidence regarding the incorrect transposing of the 2011 directive providing for the establishment of an independent and impartial maritime investigation system.
He said this failure had led to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issuing a judgment against Ireland in July 2020 and that Ms Lucas’ family believed it was important that the inquest knew the full circumstances surrounding how the incident in which she died had occurred.
Ms Lucas (41), a mother of two and librarian from Sandfield, Liscannor, Co Clare, died at University Hospital Limerick after a RIB attached to the Kilkee Irish Coast Guard Unit, on which she was crewing, capsized during a search for a missing man off the Co Clare coast on September 12th, 2016.
Limerick Coroner John McNamara told the hearing at Kilmallock Courthouse he was conscious that he could not extend an inquest beyond the scope of what was set out in the Coroners Act 1962.
Mr Kingston argued, however, that the ECJ judgment against Ireland was linked to the failure by the State to properly investigate an incident involving the capsizing of a RIB off Inch, Co Kerry, in August 2014, in circumstances similar to those in which Ms Lucas died.
The Inch incident was not investigated by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB), he said, but it was referenced in the board’s report in 2018 into Ms Lucas’ death, where the Irish Coast Guard was criticised for failing to circulate its own internal report findings on the Inch incident.
Mr Kingston said board members of the MCIB, along with author of the report on the fatal Kilkee incident, should all be called to testify but Mr McNamara said he was not going to call MCIB board members to answer questions about “a previous incident,” namely the Inch capsize.
Earlier, Mr McNamara said he had made several requests of the MCIB to have them attend the inquest but had been told that they would not be. While it was open to him to compel them to attend, he said he was reluctant to do so but would admit the MCIB report on evidence.
The Irish Coast Guard is a division of the Department of Transport and counsel for the department, Simon Mills SC, said the MCIB report was a wholly different report carried out on a different basis and its author did not have the power to call witnesses to give evidence as a coroner does at an inquest.
Mr Mills questioned the admissibility of the MCIB report and said he was concerned the inquest might be used to mount “a collateral attack on the MCIB”. He also expressed concern that Mr McNamara was “being invited to stray well beyond the parameters of the Coroners Act”.
Mr Kingston disagreed and urged Mr McNamara to follow the example of his colleague in Donegal, Dr Denis McAuley, who chose to disregard the findings of an MCIB report on an incident there in 2018 after the board declined to attend an inquest into the deaths of two men.
Mr Kingston also said the Lucas family were anxious that the coroner would call expert witness to hear what they had to say about the reliability of the life jacket and helmet worn by Ms Lucas but there was a problem as both items had gone missing since the incident.
Mr Mills said his clients would endeavour to try to locate the life jacket and helmet. Helen McCarthy, of the Health and Safety Authority, which also investigated the incident, suggested that Mr McNamara should ask Hugh Barry of the Irish Coast Guard about their whereabouts.
The family believe it is important that the items were available for an expert to examine to help establish what had led to Ms Lucas’s tragic death, the inquest heard.
Mr Kingston also requested the provision of audio recordings of communication between the Kilkee Irish Coast Guard Unit and the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 115 helicopter, as well as drone footage taken by Ennis Civil Defence which, while upsetting for the Lucas family, could assist the inquiry.
Responding to requests by Mr Kingston for more than a dozen other witnesses to be called and reports to be produced, Mr McNamara proposed that written depositions be taken from these witnesses so he could see what they had to say and how they might assist the inquest before deciding to call them.
Mr McNamara said that approach would require a second preliminary inquest hearing, which he proposed holding on June 12th to establish how many witnesses were required. He would then fix a date for the full hearing which he expected would run for at least three days.
He then expressed his sincere condolences to Ms Lucas’s husband, Bernard and their family as well as their extended family, who had experienced several bereavements this week. He adjourned the matter until June 12th.