THE latest development in the Air Corps chemicals scandal raises serious questions about the Government’s attitudes to whistleblowers, and highlights significant inconsistencies in its account of how it has managed the affair.
It is two weeks since the Irish Examiner revealed the details of a damning health-and-safety report on working conditions at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, and text messages seen by this newspaper add weight to opposition charges that the Government has tried to “bury” the affair by not engaging with those whistleblowers who had previously raised health warnings about the Air Corps staff’s exposure to chemicals.
Former defence minister Simon Coveney has told the Irish Examiner he received legal advice not to meet whistleblowers who had warned him of the Air Corps’ alleged failure to properly protect its staff from exposure to dangerous chemicals.
However, Mr Coveney has failed to address a number of questions put to him, the most substantial being how he can claim to have been “unaware” of whistleblowers wanting to hear directly from him when text messages from Chief Whip Regina Doherty suggest otherwise.
Last year, the whistleblowers, who made protected disclosures, were concerned Mr Coveney had not contacted them to confirm he had received their warnings over the working environment at Baldonnel.
They made many calls to Mr Coveney’s Departments of Defence and Agriculture, and to his constituency office in Cork, seeking assurances he had read their disclosures. One contacted the Taoiseach’s office to complain about a lack of contact with Mr Coveney.
This was put to Mr Coveney’s spokesperson over the weekend, who said: “Following the query by the Irish Examiner and an examination of the records, there is no record on file of any correspondence in either of the minister’s former department offices or constituency office seeking a meeting between the minister and the individuals concerned.”
However, this newspaper had not specifically asked whether the minister had received requests for “a meeting”. This was put to the minister, who was further asked if his definition of correspondence included telephone calls to his offices.
The minister’s office declined to reply to these follow up queries.
“The detailed response supplied to the [Irish] Examiner yesterday covers all areas raised below and there is nothing further to be added to that detailed statement,” said a spokesperson.
The minister’s statement did reveal he received advice not to meet the whistleblowers — citing the ongoing legal cases taken by former Air Corps staff, who are suing the State over illnesses they claim were caused by their exposure to chemicals in Baldonnel.
“Legal advice was sought on certain disclosures as elements related to matters which are the subject of ongoing litigation. The minister would have been advised not to make himself available to meet with the individuals concerned while litigation is ongoing,” the statement read.
However, regardless of this advice, Mr Coveney had said he was unaware of attempts to contact him — not that he failed to do so because of this legal advice.
In fact, Mr Coveney had claimed he was an “accessible minister”, and that there was no suggestion that anyone was prevented from speaking with him.
Speaking on the issue to the media last Thursday, he said: “I certainly am not aware of there being any problem with hearing from, or talking to, or understanding the concerns that whistleblowers may have. I am a pretty accessible minister and certainly there is no suggestion that anybody is being blocked or locked out.”
As text messages seen by this newspaper reveal, one of the whistleblowers contacted Chief Whip Regina Doherty as far back as December 2015 to seek her help in securing confirmation Mr Coveney received his protected disclosures.
One month on, having not heard from the minister, the whistleblower appealed to Ms Doherty again for help. She replied: “Just text him there again”.
The whistleblower then received the following two texts:
- “Regina, my apologies, I will follow up in morning and call [whistleblower] - sc”
- “Reply from Simon”
Over a year later, neither Mr Coveney nor his successor in the Department of Defence Paul Kehoe have directly contacted the whistleblowers.
The statement from Mr Coveney’s office ignored queries relating to these texts from Ms Doherty, and the office subsequently declined to comment.
Raising matters revealed by the Irish Examiner in the Dáil last week, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin put it to Taoiseach Enda Kenny that the whistleblowers feel let down by the Government.
Last Wednesday, Mr Martin told Mr Kenny that the trio feels the Government “does not accept anything they are saying and that it has no time for the manner in which they have gone about this”.
“The Taoiseach has not explained what happened between 2015, when the protected disclosure was made, and why the minister, Deputy Coveney, did not acknowledge and respond to the whistleblowers. There is a sense that this has been buried,” he said.
The whistleblowers feel vindicated by the findings of last October’s Health and Safety Authority (HSA) report — issued to the Air Corps nearly a year after the trio made the first of their protected disclosures — but ignored by the Government.
However, they were incensed last Friday when they read Mr Coveney’s claims he was ‘unaware’ of their efforts to contact him.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney confirmed that the independent third party appointed to investigate the protected disclosures made interim recommendations and observations last November, before contacting any of the three whistleblowers who had submitted the claims.
“On 7 January, 2017, a response was received from the military authorities outlining the actions underway and this has been forwarded to the independent reviewer for consideration,” read the minister’s statement.
“The reviewer will consider this material, and undertake what further steps he deems appropriate in order to finalise his review.”
The Irish Examiner understands that one of the three whistleblowers met with the independent third party on Monday, the first time any of those who made a disclosure spoke with the person tasked to review the claims they made over a year ago.
In the meantime, another disclosure was made in recent weeks.
“A further disclosure was made to the Minister on 26 January, 2017 and the Minister requested a full report from the Chief of Staff in relation to the new allegations on 1 February 2017,” read the minister’s statement. “This further disclosure has also been forwarded to the reviewer to inform his work.”
The Irish Examiner has yet to establish whether this further disclosure came from the original three whistleblowers, or from a fourth individual.