An Oireachtas committee has heard that morale is at an all-time low among coast guard volunteers around the country as a result of a climate of fear allegedly instilled in them by Irish Coast Guard management.
The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications has heard from representatives of the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Group (ICGVRG), an independent group established last year and which has around 100 members.
Chair of the group John O'Mahony addressed the committee this afternoon, along with his assistant chair Bernard Lucas, who has served with the Doolin Coast Guard, and whose late wife Caitriona died during a rescue operation off Kilkee in Co Clare in September 2016.
The committee also heard from Jim Griffin, who served as a volunteer in Dunmore East, and from Vincent Farr, who has served in Cork.
All of whom have been dismissed or suspended as volunteers by the Irish Coast Guard.
Mr O' Mahony spoke of the despair felt by members who believe their grievances are not been justly dealt with and that they have no proper avenues of appeal.
He said they have no right to go to the Workplace Relations Commission, no right to a union and cannot go to an Ombudsperson.
When a dispute occurs, he said, and a team member is targeted whether legitimate or not, they are not allowed to discuss the matter with other team members as they are bound by confidentiality mandates.
He said this causes the team to become distant from each other because no local resolution is allowed.
The association members said that the Coastal Unit Advisory Group (CUAG), which is a forum for volunteer members across the country's 44 units, does not represent them and is not working.
This accusation has been denied by CUAG, whose members also addressed the committee.
Mr Lucas spoke about how volunteers can pretty much be dismissed by something like falling out of favour with an officer in command, or if they take a dislike to you.
He said he does not know of any volunteer who has appealed their dismissal, except for a volunteer who spent up to €11,000 of his own money taking a High Court action to fight his dismissal.
Mr Lucas spoke about how volunteers are stymied from performing their duties by nonsensical constraints placed on them.
He cited a recent incident at the Cliffs of Moher where three volunteers could not enter over a fence onto a footpath regarded as dangerous, to help and stabilise a victim who had been injured.
They had to stand by while the victim was in pain and wait for the fire personnel and the rescue helicopter to arrive to deal with the casualty.
Assistant Secretary of the organisation Mr Farr said volunteers are afraid to bring up legitimate issues because he alleged a culture of fear has been instilled by ICG management.
He said CUAG is not working as management sets the agenda with them and even accused them of editing the minutes of CUAG meetings.
Secretary Mr Griffin said the morale issue is now affecting volunteerism across other organisations who are now finding it difficult to recruit volunteers.
However, many of their criticisms of CUAG were dismissed by the coordinator of that group who also addressed the meeting.
Michael Murray, who is a volunteer with the Cleggan unit, said CUAG can represent volunteers and engage with management on issues of dispute complaint and dismissal.
Mr Murray said they have sought and have now received independent HR representation, independent of coastguard management, who can give professional advice to volunteers.
In addition a 'designated grievance contact' has also been established to try to sort minor complaints, before they can fester. These are new procedures just recently established.
In addition, CUAG now has six OIC representatives and six non-OIC representatives.
He also dismissed suggestions from the ICGVRA that CUAG is not representative of volunteers views or concerns.
He said volunteers have mandated CUAG to be their representatives and when they looked for feedback from volunteers they got a huge response from OIC's and volunteers in relation to their role.
"I don't want to be harsh, but the feedback we got in relation to CUAG's role was 100% positive," he said.
Chair of the committee Kieran O'Donnell said they would write to Minister Hildegarde Naughton, who has responsibility in this area, and to the department of Transport and Communications, outlining the concerns of the volunteer group requesting that they be recognised, and that they would meet the organisation and they would follow up.