State Papers 1985: Diplomatic dithering over search and rescue missions between Britain and Ireland cost lives

DIPLOMATIC DITHERING between Britain and Ireland cost the life of a canoeist on Lough Swilly in February 1985.
It was also a contributing factor in the death of musician Phil Coulter’s brother Brian near the same spot months earlier.
Had the protocols in place now been in place then, both men could have been saved.
According to confidential National Archives documents to be released on January 4 about search and rescue mission protocols, there was a delay before a British Royal Air Force helicopter could get permission to fly into Irish airspace to rescue the canoeist.
The teenager had got into difficulty on the Co Donegal lough but diplomatic delays took more than half an hour and, documents show, they ’cost a canoeist’s life’.
This is despite the fact that the helicopter that could have been used to rescue him was based a few minutes flying time from the lough.
The incident happened on February 11, 1985 at a time when there was growing calls for a more streamlined system of search and rescue in the area.
The RLNI base that now exists on the lough was set up in 1988 after a campaign was launched following the death of the canoeist and Brian Coulter.
Some 47 lives have been saved since.
Kate Heaney, a Donegal News journalist who helped campaign to get the station established with her husband Pat, said last night: ‘Brian Coulter, who was a friend of mine, and that poor canoeist have left a great legacy.
‘Their deaths were the catalyst for the setting up of the life boat station on Lough Swilly.
‘All of us involved with the campaign had always been completely frustrated by the problems involved in calling in help for people in trouble on the lough.
Dithering also delayed the emergency rescue of a seaman who had fallen sick aboard a merchant naval vessel docked in Irish territorial waters the day after the teenage canoeist died on Lough Swilly.
As a result of the two incidents, the British appealed to the Irish government to help make the process behind clearance for reciprocal search and rescue missions simpler.
They asked if it could be ‘possible to look at ways whereby the requirement for prior diplomatic clearance might, on a reciprocal basis, be waived for these “missions of mercy”?’
In a confidential Department of Foreign Affairs document from the British Embassy in Dublin dated August 19, 1985, it was noted that ‘there were two incidents earlier this year.
’The first (involved) canoeists in County Donegal, and the second, (a) crewman of a British ship who was taken ill when his vessel was at the mouth of Carlingford Lough.
‘In the first incident, a request for help for canoeists in trouble on Lough Swilly came via the RUC from the Garda Siochana to headquarters Northern Ireland on 11 February.
‘An RAF helicopter was tasked but was delayed by at least half an hour in reaching the scene because of the need to obtain diplomatic clearance to enter Irish airspace.
‘The helicopter eventually found an empty canoe on the lough and it was felt that the delay cost a canoeist’s life.
‘The second occurred on 12 February in the form of a direct request from the master of the ship anchored off Greenore Point.
‘Again, diplomatic clearance had to be obtained before a helicopter could lift off a sick crew member.’
The official, according to documents due to be released on January 4 under the 30-year rule, asked: ‘Is it possible to look at ways whereby the requirement for prior diplomatic clearance might, on a reciprocal basis, be waived for these “missions of mercy”?
‘The Department of foreign affairs would, of course, instantly be notified as soon as a search and rescue mission in the Republic of Ireland’s airspace was mounted.
‘And under the arrangements envisaged, all the Irish Air Corps would need do no more than notify the United Kingdom authorities of any emergency Search and Rescue mission in British waters.’
In December 1985, agreed proposals for new protocols led to a system of co-operation that exists today but which was too late for the estimated eight people who died on the lough between 1974 and 1984.

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