Speaking in Seanad Éireann – 18th October 2017
First, I extend my condolences to the families of Clare O’Neill, Michael Pyke and Fintan Goss who lost their lives in Storm Ophelia. The loss of their lives is a fitting reminder of the dangers that extreme weather events can cause. We must all pay tribute to the phenomenal emergency services workers who went to work as usual on Monday, leaving their own families behind to ensure the safety of others. The ESB and local authority staff have worked around the clock to keep us all safe.
Storm Ophelia was the worst storm to hit Ireland in more than 50 years and, despite being downgraded as an ex-hurricane, almost 300,000 homes were left without power, schools and businesses closed and our public service broadcaster, RTÉ, had special programming all day to keep us informed of the storm’s trajectory. All of this was co-ordinated, of course, by the work of the national emergency co-ordination group. Nonetheless, acts of stupidity were carried out, with incidents in Louth, Galway and Kerry where the reckless behaviour of a few risked their lives and the lives of others. I think of the volunteers in Clogherhead and Greenore in County Louth who had to go out bravely into the full force of the hurricane because of two kite surfers. I ask why were they obliged to put their lives in danger just because of the stupidity and selfishness of others.
John Draper from Valentia Coast Guard wrote that Monday was, “A never-ending cycle of telling people not to risk lives”. The actions of those surfers and swimmers who took to the water despite the constant pleas from the authorities were nothing short of anti-social behaviour. They put the lives of others at risk. Niamh Fitzpatrick, sister of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick who tragically lost her life on Rescue 116, adequately summed up the feelings of many of us when she urged people to “PLEASE cop on”. Her language was temperate compared to that which I and others would have used with regard to these fools.
What are the sanctions and who is responsible for enforcing them? I have drafted legislation which would impose harsh penalties on those who damage lifesaving equipment such as defibrillators and lifebuoys. The fact that such legislation is necessary is also a sad indictment of where our society stands. The political scientist Robert Putman wrote a book called Bowling Alone and warned that our stock of social capital, the networks of relationships we have with people, marked by reciprocity, trust, and co-operation, have plummeted, damaging all our lives and communities. This is evident in the number of people who selfishly took to the seas on Monday despite the numerous warnings to stay indoors.
I fully support entirely my Fianna Fáil colleague, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, who has advised me that he will draft legislation to give emergency responders the protection they deserve by imposing deterrents on those who decide to be reckless and put lives in danger. Yesterday in the Dáil, my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, called on all parties to co-operate in bringing in legislation to prevent people taking undue risks against safety advice. Will the Government co-operate with his request? There are many who will label those of us calling for harsh penalties as kill-joys but the O’Neill, Pyke and Goss families know the reality of the danger of the storm.
I welcome the potential for an all-party solution. Those of us who work in the emergency services respond when the bleep goes off. We treat the patient who presents in front of us. We deal with the fire and do our best. It is not the time to examine the causes during the emergency, but in the cold light of day one often thinks about what is called contributory negligence. Surely if a person enters the water against the expressed wishes of the Coast Guard, An Garda Síochána or other authorities, he or she should be liable for all costs associated with his or her rescue. We are only talking about incidents which take place while a full red weather warning has been issued by the Coast Guard.
Eugene Clonan of the Irish Coast Guard was clear that people should stay away from the coastline and the water when he said:
I’d like to reiterate for recreational users to stay off the water. This is an unprecedented weather system that we’re going through. We have not experienced this before and we want people to stay safe. We urge people to stay away from the coastline.
We might examine whether an all-party solution to this issue might be found. We might also consider the idea of contributory negligence in this regard and whether some costs may be attributed to the people who are wasting the time of the emergency services.