Casement Aerodrome inquiry: Key review is a botched job

It happens in the best of homes; stuff — invoices, receipts, notes, cards and letters put by because one day they might be needed — gets lost, inadvertently destroyed or just misplaced. It’s part of the rich and familiar tapestry of domestic life. It should not happen in public organisations and authorities that spend large sums of taxpayers’ money on filing and recording systems and on the people who are supposed to run them. 

But that appears to be only one of the serious issues highlighted today in our report on the independent review of claims by former Air Corps staff who say their exposure to toxic chemicals from the late 1980s to the early 2000s caused chronic illnesses. Another seems to be that the review — established by the Defence department — was itself not fit for purpose.

The review — by a retired civil servant — was charged with examining the allegations made by Air Corps workers whose claim was that the State failed to give them adequate training and protection ... a fairly straightforward mission, then. No, not at all; it has been a waste of time, and for that no fault at all attaches to the retired civil servant, Christopher O’Toole. His only error, perhaps, was to accept the toxic commission at the outset.

His report amounts to a textbook case in how to not to construct — deliberately or otherwise — a review on a topic of importance: the health of employees. He reveals that the terms of reference he was given were “impractical”, explaining that parts of the accusations concerning chemicals were issues beyond his expertise. “Whether there is now or was at the relevant time an actual level of exposure which was in fact potentially harmful I am not in a position to judge.” Mr O’Toole is a legal eagle, not a chemicals man, though whether he was unable to get expert scientific advice and evidence is far from clear. In any event, he could do little, if anything, more than comment in general terms on the safety regime at Air Corps’ Casement Aerodrome.

Those are, sadly, very general terms because, as he goes on to explain, “a problem has arisen in relation to the issues raised by the informants because appropriate records to demonstrate compliance are not readily available ... In the absence of such records, proof of compliance is problematic and establishing the actual situation at the time in question would be a complex task requiring the gathering of evidence and probably taking oral testimony; in effect a forensic exercise which it is not possible for me to carry out.”

The review tells those most affected — and that could be a great many Air Corps employees — and the wider public nothing about the facts at the heart of this case, leaving us still with questions about the “appropriate records” that are not available. What is necessary now is a second review, led by an independent chemicals expert — perhaps from Scotland or Wales — who can establish once and for all what happened, or didn’t happen, at Casement Aerodrome.

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