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Lawyer Making High Court Bid to Have Whiddy Island Deaths Declared "Unlawful"

2nd August 2019
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Michael Kingston Michael Kingston

An Irish maritime lawyer intends to seek a High Court declaration that the Whiddy island deaths which occurred in the Betelgeuse oil tanker explosion and fire 40-years ago were “unlawful”.

Lawyer Michael Kingston also intends to seek a State apology for the 51 victims’ families, and a commitment to a thorough review of Ireland's maritime and energy regulatory and safety frameworks.

Mr Kingston says an application will be made to have the coroner’s hearing into the deaths reconvened to return a new verdict of unlawful killing.

The apology is being sought not just for the families of the victims, but also the staff and rescue service personnel and volunteers whose lives were put in danger by the explosion, along with the community of Bantry and surrounds in West Cork, he says.

"A total of 42 French, seven Irish men and the English cargo surveyor died on January 8th, 1979"

A total of 42 French, seven Irish men and the English cargo surveyor died on January 8th, 1979 when the French oil tanker, MV Betelgeuse, caught fire and exploded at Gulf Oil’s Whiddy Island oil terminal offshore jetty in Bantry Bay, Co Cork.

Mr Kingston’s father, Tim, died along with colleagues Charlie Brennan, Denis O’Leary, Neilly O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan, Liam Shanahan and David Warner, and Englishman Mike Harris.

Dutch diving supervisor Jaap Pols died during the salvage operation in what was the worst industrial maritime disaster to occur in the Republic of Ireland's history.

Mr Kingston, London-based and from Goleen, Co Cork, confirmed in a speech at the Spirit of Mother Jones festival in Shandon, Cork, on Friday that a group called the French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse intend to crowd-fund on social media to finance the action.

“ In the same manner as the recently successful application under European law by the families of the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in Britain, the families are asking that a coroners hearing be reconvened and that the coroner is directed by the High Court to find the deaths ‘unlawful’, thereby establishing the victims’ rights in death correctly,”Mr Kingston said.

The families are also seeking “an appropriate State apology” and a “thorough review of Ireland's maritime and energy regulatory framework”, he said.

This should ensure implementation of “currently outstanding international maritime regulation” which demonstrates that “the State has finally learnt from this appalling tragedy”, Mr Kingston said.

In a report on the Whiddy disaster by a tribunal headed by Mr Justice Declan Costello, three key failures were identified, including the poor condition of the Betelgeuse, for which French company Total SA was deemed responsible.

The French oil company was also held responsible for incorrect unloading procedures and ballasting, while emergency services at Whiddy and on the Beteleguses were found to be inadequate. The judge ruled that both Total SA and Gulf Oil were jointly responsible.

Mr Kingston, who was four years old when his father died, believes the Betelgeuse disaster highlighted a failure by the State to implement regulation.

“The disaster devastated the families involved, the community of Bantry and Co Cork, communities in France and England, and left workers and rescue personnel, who were forced into terrible danger, in trauma,” he said.

“Despite repeated requests for assistance in helping to commemorate those who died ... and repeated requests to carry out a thorough review of Irish maritime regulation, the State leaders have consistently failed to support the families, and have ignored correspondence regarding safety,” he said.

As an example, Ireland had failed to ratify the International Convention, SOLAS 1974 which included mandatory use of inert gas systems to prevent explosions on oil tankers.

Ireland “continues to fail to implement International Maritime Organisation conventions leaving Ireland’s workers and rescue services at unnecessary risk”, he said.

The High Court action will be taken on the basis of Right to Life under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, Mr Kingston said.

Mr Kingston has represented the International Union of Marine Insurance at the International Maritime Organisation.

He has conducted legal reviews of Lloyd’s of London’s 2011 Drilling in Extreme Environments report following the Deep-Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and their 2013 Removal of Wreck report, following the sinking of Costa Concordia off Tuscany in 2012.

Listen to Tom MacSweeney's Afloat podcast with Michael Kingston here

Published in News Update
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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