Brendan Howlin: Review Air Corps health claims

Labour leader Brendan Howlin is not satisfied with the Government’s response to the Air Corps chemical exposure scandal, and has called for an external review of the allegations.

In the absence of military or government statistics on untimely deaths in the Irish Air Corps we created our own. We are happy to have these tested or even proven wrong by better statistics gathered by the state in a comprehensive, open and transparent manner. #WeAreNotStatisticians

The State is facing seven High Court claims from former Air Corps technicians, who say they suffer chronic illnesses due to exposure to toxic chemicals while they were cleaning and servicing aircraft.

A number of whistleblowers have made protected disclosures about working conditions in Air Corps headquarters at Casement Aerodrome. The Health and Safety Authority subsequently investigated, and threatened legal action, unless the Defence Forces improved worker safety.

Mr Howlin raised the issue in the Dáil last month, and has since received correspondence from the Government.

“I’ve raised it with the Taoiseach directly and I’ve gotten a two-page response from the minister with responsibility for defence, and I’m not satisfied,” Mr Howlin said. “There needs to be at least an expert-review panel set up to look into this in some detail.”

However, Mr Howlin did not call for a full commission of investigation, but said that the findings of an external review should determine whether such a process is necessary.

“Whether a full tribunal of investigation is required remains to be seen, but the first step to that is to have an external, expert review, and that needs to happen immediately, and I certainly will be pressing for that,” he said.

This review should include a health study of Air Corps members past and present to determine if they have a higher prevalence of chronic conditions compared to the general public, he said.

“That would have to be a critical part of the review, because, once the fears are there, they have to be empirically checked out,” Mr Howlin said.

“They are either fact or not fact. There’s no point in people either dismissing them, or saying it’s a fact. We need to have external, independent, authoritative decisions on these matters.”

Read full article on Irish Examiner website below…

Dáil Éireann Leader’s Questions 30/11/17 – Irish Air Corps

Brendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)

In addition to his other duties the Taoiseach has retained for himself the role of Minister for Defence. It is not clear to me that he takes any real responsibility for the area of Defence. It is not acceptable for a Cabinet Minister to simply delegate the entire responsibility for a Government Department to a Minister of State. The Taoiseach does not answer parliamentary questions on the matter. I do not know if he attends monthly management meetings of the leadership team of the Department of Defence or if he regularly attends meetings with the Secretary General or other senior officials of the Department.

He seems to be sidestepping personal responsibility for his Department. Very serious issues are arising. The wives and partners of Defence Forces personnel are outside the gates of Leinster House this morning to continue to highlight some of these issues, in particular the clear fact that many members are leaving because they cannot live on current earnings. The Tánaiste will tell the House that the matter is being examined by a public sector pay commission, but the Government was happy to act unilaterally in respect of the new Garda Commissioner and the highly paid academics we needed to attract. I believe genuinely that the Government would find consensus in the House for a bespoke pay review for the Defence Forces, which is warranted and urgently required. I cannot understand why it is willing to recognise the Garda associations in pay negotiations but will not do the same for the representative associations of Defence Forces’ personnel.

Reports this week have made it clear that an Air Corps whistleblower faces discharge from the Defence Forces. That a serving member of the Defence Forces can face disciplinary action for chronic inactivity, as it was stated, following a work-related industrial dispute is disconcerting, in particular when it is reported that he has told the Minister of State that he was targeted for raising safety concerns. Mr. Christopher O’Toole has been appointed to examine protected disclosures on the working environment at Casement Aerodrome. It is reported that the terms of reference he was given were impractical. This is all the more concerning now that we know the State Claims Agency carried out a number of health and safety management audits of the Defence Forces and that the Defence Forces can only offer speculative explanations for why prior inspection reports from Casement Aerodrome have gone missing. That is unsatisfactory, especially in the light of the fact that copies of these documents are in circulation among politicians and the media. Efforts to establish whether the documents were deliberately destroyed have amounted to asking the Defence Forces to investigate themselves.

What action will the Government take to ensure every member of the Defence Forces will earn at least a living wage? Will it commit to recognising Defence Forces’ associations in pay negotiations? Is it satisfied that the Defence Forces’ members who met the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to discuss these concerns are receiving the full protection warranted under the Protected Disclosures Act? Has it considered the establishment of a commission of investigation to establish whether the health and safety management regime at Casement Aerodrome meets the standards of the day and whether the allegations have any credibility?

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The Deputy has asked a lot of questions. If I do not get to all of them on the floor of the House, I will respond having spoken to the Minister of State with responsibility for defence matters. I am personally familiar with some of the cases referred to and previous whistleblowers in relation to issues at Casement Aerodrome. I commit to coming back to the Deputy in detail on these issues.

Brendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)

That is appreciated.

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The Government may have to make decisions on future actions there and we await recommendations from the Minister of State in that regard. It is something in which I have taken a personal interest and of which I have some knowledge, but I cannot go into the detail on the floor of the Dáil.

Seán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)

It needs to happen on the floor of the Dáil.


Alan Kelly (Tipperary,Labour)

Look at what happened in the last week.

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

There will be answers to these questions.

On the wives and partners of Defence Forces’ personnel who are making a point today, I note that successful negotiations with the Permanent Defence Force representative associations have led to significant pay increases under the Lansdowne Road agreement for Defence Forces’ personnel. The public service stability agreement for the period 2018 to 2020 provides for a series of further pay increases in the next three years. Given the ministerial offices Deputy Brendan Howlin has held, he will know of the difficulty in separating one sector from all others for special treatment in public sector pay, but that is what he is asking us to do. There are other issues about what the Department of Defence can do about other supports available to Defence Forces’ personnel. There have been reviews in that regard. There are many sectors in the economy and society that can make a very valid case for improved pay and working conditions. I understand that, of course, the Defence Forces will make that case for themselves through the representative organisations and, in this case, private family members. Of course, the Government will listen. However, we have to operate within a certain pay structure across the public sector. If we were to start to dismantle it for individual sectors, the Deputy knows of the chaos it would cause.

As a former Minister for Defence, I record the Government’s strong appreciation of the role the Defence Forces play. I have visited many peacekeeping missions around the world and had the privilege to spend time with families who have lost loved ones in the service of the country in the Defence Forces. They are valued. We are building personnel numbers in the Defence Forces and the recruitment campaign is a success. We are adding substantially more personnel to the Defence Forces than we are losing and will continue to see that trend develop into 2018.

Brendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)

I appreciate the Tánaiste’s reply and understand he cannot give me a comprehensive response on the Casement Aerodrome issues. I look forward to either a direct briefing or a written response in due course. I have full knowledge of pay issues in dealing with the public service as a whole, but there is a compelling case to be made for separating out the Defence Forces for a bespoke review. I say this in the full knowledge of how difficult it would be. The shockingly low pay levels across the sector are having an impact on retention in key skills areas. When these difficulties arose in the health sector, we managed to formulate a way to deal with them. For example, we had a formula for skilled nurses. We need to recognise what is happening. The fact that the people concerned are not allowed to manifest their voices publicly does not mean that they should be ignored. As such, I ask whether consideration will be given to a unique pay review within the Defence Forces and outside the Public Sector Pay Commission.

Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)

The Minister of State with responsibility for defence matters tells me that this is happening in the context of having special skill sets within the Defence Forces. It is important to note, having regard to the broader arrangements in place, that combined increases in recent months for new recruits have ranged from 8% to 24%, depending on the point on which they are on the pay scales. We are seeing an economy which can afford to pay the public sector more. The bodies which represent members of the Defence Forces have bought into and want to be part of negotiations and their members are starting to benefit, but that is not to suggest there is no frustration in the Defence Forces. However, across the public sector, including within the Defence Forces, deals negotiated with representative bodies mean that we will see continuous improvements in pay into the future, which is positive.

On the Air Corps, the Minister of State has only recently received observations and replies from the three individuals who made protected disclosures on the independent review report which he had commissioned and forwarded to them. Having received responses on the report from the three individuals, the Minister of State will have to make recommendations to the Government. We will make decisions on whether further action is required.

Alan Kelly (Tipperary,Labour)

The Taoiseach is the Minister.




Dáil Éireann – Questions from Opposition Leaders or their representatives to the Government – 30th November 2017