Byrne family still denied justice by ‘unforgiving state’

NEXT Sunday, a large family from the isolated Donegal peninsula of St John’s Point will gather for Mass to pray for the souls of Francis Byrne and his son Jimmy.

It will be the 29th anniversary of the night the two Byrnes and three fellow fishermen drowned when the Skifjord trawler sunk while sheltering from a storm.

Francis was aged 40. His son was 16. He left behind a wife and eight children who, as a result of that tragedy, became the repeated and unwitting adversaries of the state.

A series of battles with bureaucracy and the Government has seen the Byrnes suffer inexplicable hardship.

In 2009, the Government was told some of this could be corrected through compensation of €245,075, in lieu of new fishing tonnage.

But last week, in a defiant act by the Fianna Fáil members of the Government, the family was again denied what Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said they were entitled to. The Oireachtas Agriculture Committee, with its own report, contradicted her and said the Lost at Sea scheme, which the Byrnes were excluded from, had been administered properly. Instead of supporting the Byrnes’ claim to €245,075, the committee opted to drag the Government’s battle with the family out further.

Ever since October 31, 1981, the Byrnes had become used to such snubs from the state.

Winifred Byrne, Francis’s wife, was contacted early that morning by a reporter who phoned to ask her for a comment. It was the first she heard of an event that would upend her home.

Francis had a young family. His eldest son, Francis, had begun college in NIHE, now the University of Limerick. Susie was the oldest girl. Jimmy’s body was found by divers the Friday after the sinking.

The remaining six were under the age of 12. Michelle Byrne was three when her father drowned.

Francis’s body was swept away, never to be found.

Despite the entire country knowing the nature of the loss, this fact still caused immense suffering.

Without a body, the death certificate was not issued promptly. This meant Winifred could not qualify for a widow’s pension. On top of that, Francis had died without making a will.

The coastal community from Burtonport back into Donegal Bay was a big support to the Byrnes. The state was not.

The county sheriff paid visits. Eviction was threatened. The family home had to be re-mortgaged.

The family fought through the 1980s. The older children emigrated and sent back money to support their younger siblings. “The whole world knew our circumstances. But they were a pretty unforgiving government, even back then,” the family said.

The Byrnes did not have the means or the immediate desire to buy a new boat.

They did not see the obscure advertisements in 2001 for a scheme to help the owners and families of stricken trawlers to return to business.

In her report, compiled after a three year investigation, Ms O’Reilly said the family’s hardship was compounded by the Department of Agriculture’s refusal to include the Byrnes under this Lost at Sea package.

The report found the scheme, championed by Fianna Fáil minister Frank Fahey, was not run properly and was structured to suit a very small pool of people.

Her recommendation for compensation was not accepted. For two years, the department has faced her down on this issue.

In December 2009, Ms O’Reilly took the extraordinary step of publishing a special report on the family to publicise their case.

The Government refused to debate it, consider it or pay the family.

It eventually agreed to allow the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee to inquire into the affair. Last week Fianna Fáil used party orders to get its nine committee members to vote down the Ombudsman’s findings and produce their own report which supported Mr Fahey’s position.

Ms O’Reilly said the decision damaged the citizens of the country.

In Donegal, it layered more anger on top of three decades of grief and heartache at the hands of the state.

FRANCIS BYRNE was a skilled trawlerman. He was a skipper the fishing authorities looked to when they needed a steady hand to take charge of financially struggling vessels.

He had lost his own father at sea. And he had experience of harbours right around the coast.

The eight crewmen left Killybegs at 5.30pm on Friday, October 30, and steamed around the coast to hook up with their partner trawler, the Arkansas, which was pencilled in to help drag its mackerel nets out.

At 2.20am, the Skifjord was washed up onto a reef. The Arkansas came to help. But Francis said it was too dangerous to approach the rocks at night.

He assessed the situation and told the Arkansas the crew was “sitting solid”. It would ride out the night.

Two hours later, a rogue wave forced the Skifjord off its perch. Its hull had been breached. Water was taken on. She sunk quickly.

The Skifjord had only been bought from Aloysius Bonner at Burtonport three months earlier. It was a fateful decision to upgrade from the Loretto.

The Skifjord was a significant boat. It was one of the five largest in the Irish fleet and too big to take shelter in the port.

The change of boat was also a move which the department used against the family in 2003.

The department said the Skifjord did not qualify for Lost at Sea because the vessel was not being used for a considerable time by Francis. The Ombudsman said this did not stack up because he was fishing with the Loretto.

The department also decided the Byrnes did not meet the criteria because they were not fishing when the Lost at Sea scheme was opened.

However, two of Francis’s sons, Eamon and Padraic, were fishing in 2001, and would have been in a position to take up the tonnage.

The steel frame of the Skifjord is still intact. It is resting on its starboard side, on rocks and sand, 28 metres below the surface of the dark waters off Burtonport.

The nets are strapped in the same place as they were when the Skifjord took shelter. It is going nowhere.

In the murky waters of parliamentary politics, the Fianna Fáil TDs and senators have been equally immovable when it comes to looking after the family of the Skifjord’s drowned skipper.

Last week they voted not to demand compensation for the Byrne family. One committee members, Bobby Aylward, boldly said the decision to reject the Ombudsman’s advocacy of the Byrnes was a good one.

“You can call it a party whip or whatever — but I’d be calling it democracy at its best,” he said.

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