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Whiddy families may bring case to High Court

January 14th, 2019 9:55 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Members of the Irish Navy stand to attention at the memorial commemorating the victims of the Betelgeuse disaster in Bantry on Tuesdsay, as the LE James Joyce lies in the bay. (Photo: Bill Miller)

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WEST Cork-born maritime lawyer Michael Kingston has threatened to bring a case to the High Court in order to get justice for the families of the Whiddy disaster – 40 years after his own father was killed in the Bantry Bay explosion.

Describing the 1979 Betelgeuse tanker tragedy, which killed 51 people, as Ireland’s ‘Hillsborough’, he said the government needed to step up to the mark and get justice for the families, even if it meant enacting overdue corporate manslaughter legislation.

Speaking at a special service in Bantry on Tuesday, Mr Kingston launched a scathing attack on the Taoiseach, President Higgins and senior ministers for failing to attend the 40th commemoration.

He said the Irish government had been negligent in their duty to implement safety guidelines which had led to the 1979 tragedy, and that since then, they had also failed to implement a number of international safety guidelines.

He wondered if the Rescue 116 tragedy would have occurred if the government had acted on his earlier advice, in unanswered correspondence, to ratify international safety regulations in this country.

The father of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, who was killed in the 116 crash, John Fitzpatrick, was in Bantry on Tuesday, along with hundreds of members of Irish search and rescue services, fire and emergency services, the RNLI, Coast Guard, Irish navy and medical professionals.

The French and Canadian ambassadors were also present, and mass was concelebrated by Canon Martin O’Driscoll from Bantry and Bishop John Buckley. But Mr Kingston said the most senior government member present was junior minister Jim Daly, although he noted his mental health portfolio was relevant, given the huge trauma still being experienced by the families. He urged Minister Daly to ask the Taoiseach to issue an apology to the families, for the dereliction of duty in 1979, and also to ensure that corporate manslaughter legislation is enacted without delay. He said he would, if necessary, with the French families, bring a case to the High Court, under the Right to Life provision in the Constitution, similar to the strategy followed by Hillsborough disaster families. ‘But I hope you will do the decent thing and spare us that trip Minister,’ he added.

In response, Minister Daly said he would relay Mr Kingston’s message to his government colleagues.

Speaking after the mass to The Southern Star, Jill Warner Hayes, sister of victim Capt David Warner, said Mr Kingston had made a ‘very important speech’ and that he was right to seek an apology from our government. 

‘The Taoiseach should have been here today, and so should Minister Coveney. I am so glad Michael had the courage of his convictions today to say what he did. They should apologise and acknowledge the very cavalier attitude to safety at the time,’ she said.

• Read Michael Kingston’s speech in full at southernstar.ie.

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