By Joe Leogue
A group of former air corps personnel say they will campaign against junior defence minister Paul Kehoe’s re-election in his Wexford constituency in protest at his response to health and safety issues within the force.
The group, Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors, picketed outside Mr Kehoe’s constituency office in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, on Saturday, and have claimed that 19 of their former colleagues have died since whistle-blowers raised concerns three years ago.
Seven former air corps technicians are suing the State, alleging that their exposure to toxic solvents in the course of their duties has caused them to suffer from chronic illnesses including cancer.
Meanwhile, a number of serving and former air corps personnel have made protected disclosures to Mr Kehoe’s department on the alleged lack of health and safety training and equipment made available to those servicing aircraft.
A complaint to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) resulted in inspections and calls for a number of changes to the management of personnel exposure to dangerous chemicals.
It has been five years since the first legal case was taken against the State, three years since the department received protected disclosures, and a report from an independent reviewer on the whistle-blowers’ allegations has been with the department for over a year now.
“Both the Minister for Defence, Leo Varadkar, and the minister of state with responsibility for defence, Paul Kehoe, have failed to offer medical help to save the lives and ease the suffering of Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors and apparently believe the best place to get medical help is via the High Court,” said the protest group in a statement.
“In the meantime the State Claims Agency is doing all in its power to prevent cases of injured Air Corps personnel from reaching court in order to hide their own negligence.”
The group is calling on the minister to introduce non-means tested medical cards for those affected, an awareness campaign for those who worked in the workshops at Casement Aerodrome, and other measures to aid former staff with health issues.
A spokesperson for Mr Kehoe said the HSA “has formally noted the considerable progress made to date by the Defence Forces towards implementation of a safety management system for the control of hazardous substances”.
“Following receipt of the report of the independent reviewer, the minister invited the views of those who had made the disclosures and published the report,” said the spokesperson. “He also sent the report to the chief of staff for the views and actions of the military authorities to be set out.”