Neil Michael: Taoiseach under pressure as SCA slow to hand over air corps documents

'Is it hoping witnesses will die?' The reluctance of the State Claims Agency to release documents has put the spotlight on Micheál Martin.
Neil Michael: Taoiseach under pressure as SCA slow to hand over air corps documents

Gavin Tobin. Picture: Larry Cummins

Senator Gerard Craughwell didn’t mince his words after he found out Gavin Tobin can’t get documents he has sought since 2016 from State Claims Agency lawyers.

Is — he later asked, when he raised the issue in the Seanad — the agency hoping that people like him will die before any action takes place?

It’s not the first time the issue of air corps personnel dying has been raised in the Oireachtas in relation to exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The Dáil has previously heard research by Mr Tobin which has raised questions over at least 73 deaths of former air corps personnel with an average age of 50.

Among the documents the former technician wants is the list of all the chemicals that were used while he was employed in the air corps for just under 10 years.

Personnel like him, the Dáil has heard, were regularly exposed to chemicals while working at the Baldonnel Air Base at a time when they had little or no personal protective equipment.

The air corps remains accused of failing to protect its technicians from the effects of cancer-causing chemicals, with whistleblowers claiming that decades of neglect has had a devastating effect on their health.

“Is it hoping witnesses will die?” Senator Craughwell asked of the inability of the SCA to comply with a 2019 Supreme Court ruling that the documents have to be handed over.

It falls to this House to make damn sure that those who work for the State comply with the orders of the courts at the very least.

“Whichever minister is responsible for the State Claims Agency should be brought before this House to explain why it is that it can do what it is doing. We have seen what happened regarding cervical cancer and various other areas. It is bloody well outrageous.” 

Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the Sinn Fein TD who has repeatedly raised the chemical exposure issue in the Dail, agrees.

He plans to once again raise a motion floated last year that there be “an immediate health review of all current and former members of the air corps to ascertain their level of exposure to dangerous chemicals while in the service”.

The TD said the matter is also likely to be raised by Sinn Féin at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence.

When it does, he said, Department of Defence chiefs will be asked to account for their actions, including how whistleblowing Air Corps chemical exposure survivors have been treated.

“I believe Micheál Martin should act on his comments over the years," he said.

“The Fianna Fáil party has, in general, supported calls for a review of all of the health and safety issues around the historic handling of chemicals. Now the party has the opportunity to act on what they have said over the years.” 

Quite what the Taoiseach made of Senator Craughwell’s remarks on July 17 by the former Defence Forces sergeant is not known.

However, his own views about the issue of air corps personnel chemical exposure are well documented.

Speaking in the Dáil on February 1, 2017 to then-taoiseach Enda Kenny, he described the situation as a “very serious issue ... which could represent a serious scandal”.

He displayed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the exposure of air corps personnel to lethal chemicals when he laid extensive details about the situation before Mr Kenny and the Dáil.

Mr Martin pointed out that three whistleblowers had previously warned the government in 2015 about conditions at Baldonnel and the degree to which staff were exposed to dangerous chemicals.

He also pointed out that links of the particular chemicals used by the air corps to cancer-causing diseases, genetic mutations, neurological conditions, and chronic diseases had been well-established.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was a vocal critic of government inaction on working conditions in the air corps while in Opposition. Picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was a vocal critic of government inaction on working conditions in the air corps while in Opposition. Picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin

Mr Martin reminded Mr Kenny that complaints were made to the Department of Defence, the air corps and the Defence Forces in 2012 regarding this matter.

And, he said that the Department of Defence was informed in 2015 that workers were not receiving occupational health monitoring, as is required by law under the Health and Safety Act 2005.

“In what was an extraordinary situation, they were not provided with protective equipment and clothing as they worked with very dangerous chemicals,” he said.

“The response of the State has been deeply depressing. Why was the State so slow to respond to the whistleblowers and to investigate the health conditions at Baldonnel?

“Why were the whistleblowers not acknowledged?”.

And, turning to Mr Kenny, he repeated: “I put it to the taoiseach that the response of the Government is to bury this matter.” 

He demanded the government publish internal reports into the issue, and he asked: “Will the Taoiseach ensure there was full public disclosure?

“We are not talking about just now, but what went on for the past 20 to 25 years.

“The Irish government more or less says to the whistleblowers that it does not accept anything they are saying.” 

Mr Martin has also branded the terms of an independent report into whistleblower allegations by the air corps as "farcical".

Whistleblowers had previously alleged that inspection records dating back to the 1990s were deliberately destroyed because they had raised concerns.

But both the government and the Defence Forces have denied the claim, and say the reports in question were mislaid over time.

Mr Martin said, in October 2017, that he believed a Commission of Investigation was necessary.

The Irish Examiner quoted him at the time as saying: “The situation is far from satisfactory.

The Government needs to establish a forensic examination into this. I don’t think it is acceptable to wait for court cases against the State to conclude as there is no guarantee these legal proceedings will establish what happened in the past.

“In the meantime, the government needs to initiate a health assessment, a baseline study of the personnel who worked in Baldonnel."

Addressing the Dáil at one stage, Mr Martin also called an Irish Examiner investigation into working conditions in the air corps a “horror story”.

But words are one thing — he will ultimately be judged on his actions. But what he plans to do is unclear.

When asked what happens now, a Government spokesperson said: “The Taoiseach is anxious the highest health and safety standards apply in the air corps.

“He will engage with the Department of Defence in relation to these issues.” 

No further information was forthcoming.

Mr Tobin recently wrote to Mr Martin wishing him well on becoming the Taoiseach and reminded him of his support for his case and others like it.

“I am looking forward to engaging with Mr Martin," he said. "If he wants to get to the truth of the matter, he is going to have to talk to us.

“Now that he is Taoiseach, I don’t doubt he will be steered in one way by officials who will downplay my stories and other stories.”

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