Donegal family in bid over Lost at Sea scheme

Monday 10 February 2014 18.55
The Byrne family has brought its campaign to the European Parliament Petitions committee (Pic: EPA)
The Byrne family has brought its campaign to the European Parliament Petitions committee (Pic: EPA)

A Donegal family has taken its campaign for compensation over the sinking of a fishing vessel 33 years ago to a committee of the European Parliament in Brussels.

The Byrne family from Bruckless near Killybegs has complained for many years over the handling of their application, which had been submitted via the controversial Lost at Sea scheme.

The case today came before the European Parliament Petitions Committee.

The committee said it would write to Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney to ask why the Government has not acted upon a recommendation by former Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly that the family be compensated.

Francis Byrne and his 16-year-old son were lost along with three crew off northwest Donegal in October 1981, when his fishing trawler the MFV Skifjord sank.

The surviving family members later applied to the Lost at Sea scheme, set up by former Fianna Fáil fisheries minister Frank Fahy in June 2001.

The scheme had been set up to compensate long-standing fishing families through the provision of valuable tonnage quota after a series of fishing tragedies in the 1980s.

After the Byrne family's late application to the scheme was turned down, Ms O'Reilly was called in to investigate.

She concluded that the family had been treated unfairly, and that the scheme had shortcomings that contributed to the family's late application, and therefore the rejection of their application.

In 2009 Ms O'Reilly, who recently took up her post as the EU Ombudsman, recommended that the family receive a once-off payment of €250,000, but her report was rejected by the Department of the Marine.

It was only the second time an Ombudsman's report had been rejected by a government department.

The Lost at Sea scheme ran for six months from June 2001, and six out of 67 applicants were successful.

There was considerable controversy when it emerged that two of the six successful applicants were constituents of Mr Fahy.

They received compensation by way of tonnage worth €2.1m.

Danny Byrne, who was eight at the time of the sinking, took the complaint on behalf of his mother who was left to raise a young family of five boys and three girls. Mr Byrne contended that the scheme was not advertised widely.

In her report, Ms O'Reilly concluded: "The advantage conferred on some prospective applicants who were notified of the scheme by the Minister and the Department as compared to others who were not so notified."

At the time, Mr Fahy contended that he had always sought to strike a balance between compensating genuine victims and avoiding too many pay outs for compensation by the department.

The European Parliament Petitions Committee does not have binding powers, but its findings can bring pressure to bear on particular cases.