18th October

The case for a European Union coastguard

John Cushnahan, Fine Gael MEP for Munister 1989-2004 explains why

The recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean has chillingly demonstrated the danger that can lurk in the seas surrounding island countries, spelling potential disaster for coastal communities. Professor Bill Mc Guire, a hazards research expert at University College London, has warned that a collapse of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Isles could inflict a tsunami-type catastrophe on Ireland. Before anyone starts heading for the hills, it is important to note that the experts point out that natural disasters of this type are infrequent, rarely occurring in the same century or even Millennium. In my view, a more immediate danger is more likely to be the consequence of a man-made disaster rather than a natural one.

In recent years, European coastal waters have experienced a significant increase in maritime traffic, often with horrific consequences. There have been environmental disasters: tragic loss of life in shipping accidents; criminal trafficking in drugs and human beings, and continued flagrant breaches of the Common Fisheries Policy.


Maritime leisure activities have also rapidly expanded. A failure to adequately regulate, monitor and police all these areas will have direct consequences for European citizens in general and Ireland’s coastal communities in particular, given that the Irish coastline is situated on the main shipping lanes between Europe and both the Americas and North Africa.

Inadequate resources
A detailed examination of any of the problem areas e.g. the danger of environmental pollution, would illustrate how inadequate our resources would be if confronted with a major disaster in Irish waters. Our local coastguard and other services demonstrated their tremendous commitment and expertise in responding to the dangers posed by Celestial Dawn off the Dingle coast in February 2002; Sea Hamex in Rosslare harbour in January 2003 and Princess Eva off the Donegal coast in the same month.

These, however, were nowhere near the scale of the Prestige disaster in November 2002. The lesson we learnt from this tragedy was not only would we be totally unable to provide the necessary rescue and clean-up operations, neither was a country like Spain. Structured, organised co-operation between EU member states is essential for damage limitation.
The enduring environmental pollution caused by the Prestige disaster demonstrated that EU member states acting alone (even large ones) are under-resourced and ill-prepared to tackle problems of this magnitude.

Furthermore, the dispute over responsibility led to a delay in the rescue operation with devastating consequences for the Galician coastline inflicting serious long-term damage to its fishing and tourism industries. Whilst recent proposals from the Commission to make the polluter pay in environmental disasters are welcome, they fall well short of providing an adequate response mechanism, which is an absolute prerequisite if damage is to be kept to a total minimum.

What we need is an EU Coastguard with the same functions and powers that are enjoyed by the U. S. Coastguard.

Had there been an EU Coastguard at the time of the Prestige disaster, the situation would have been very different. It would have been viewed as having occurred in EU waters, not just affecting one or two countries but with potentially devastating consequences for the European shared environment and the European fishing and tourist sectors and related industries.

A co-ordinated EU response could have been immediate. The response time would have been reduced. A refuge port would have been designated, and the damage could have been limited. EU Coastguard experts, had they existed, could have advised on the best course of action and we could have had a fleet of EU Coastguard boats ready to implement a clean-up operation, possibly reducing the magnitude of such an ecological disaster. There would have been no dispute about responsibility, and the reaction would have been immediate, based on technical expertise rather than political point scoring.

Having campaigned for the creation of an EU Coastguard for over 15 years, I succeeded in persuading the European Parliament to include this proposal in three separate major reports on Sea Safety, Marine Pollution and EU Security Architure (the Sterckx, Pex and Morillon reports). Unfortunately, EU member state governments have been less enthusiastic.

I was particularly disappointed at the lack of response of our own government, especially during the Irish Presidency of the EU.

Does the current government seriously believe that a dedicated Irish marine pollution vessel alone would be sufficient to respond if an Erika or Prestige problem were to occur in Irish coastal waters?

Instead the Irish government, in alliance with the governments of France, Spain and Portugal (the countries most affected by these two disasters), should be campaigning to persuade their European partners of the merits of establishing an EU coastguard to police the 99,000km long European coastline and protect it from the threats it faces, not only from natural disasters but also from international criminals and those who do not treat our seas with the respect they deserve.

Opposition calls for dedicated emergency response vessel

Labour's spokesperson on the marine, deputy Tommy Broughan, has urged marine ministers Noel Dempsey and Pat the Cope Gallagher to make maritime safety their top priority for the remaining term of this government.

“It is critical for the protection of Irish mariners and the Irish coastline that the marine department should secure the necessary funding to purchase an ocean-going emergency towing tug.”

Deputy Broughan referred to the Chicoutimi tragedy of last year, which he said once again identified how vulnerable Ireland was to a maritime pollution disaster.

“Mariners and fishermen have contacted me to urge the acquisition of such an emergency vessel. They have rightly asked how the Irish Coast Guard could have protected our shoreline if the Chicoutimi had been a nuclear submarine, or a tanker, or a bulker carrying oil or other minerals, without the capacity to quickly take a large vessel in tow to secure the safety of the crew and coastal residents,” he said.

Deputy Broughan told Inshore Ireland that he had raised this matter on many occasions with the former marine minister, Dermot Ahern. “Positive responses in Dail Eireann, however, were never accompanied by a request to the Minister for Finance to include the necessary funding in any budget estimates,” he said.

“When legislation like the Sea Pollution Bill, 200; the Oil Pollution (Amendment) Bill 2003 and the Dumping At Sea (Amendment) Bill 2000 were going through Dail Eireann, Ministers Ahern and Browne promised to expedite the process of acquiring an emergency towing vessel. Now they have both left the marine department and the grave danger to maritime safety continues,” he said.

The lack of a rapid response vessel here “contrasts sharply with the attention given by the British government to this matter,” deputy Broughan added.

Following the publication by the U.K. government of a major report entitled Review of Emergency Towing Vessel Provision Around The Coast of the U.K three years ago, the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (M.C.A.) now has four emergency sea-going tugs on standby, 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year.

“Yet despite Ireland's vulnerability with thousands of kilometres of coastline and 300,000 square miles of seas, our government has failed to act. The Chicoutimi incident and the near disaster of the Princess Eva off the Donegal coast show that a major human and environmental catastrophe could occur at any time around the Irish coastline,” deputy Broughan concluded.

Speaking to Inshore Ireland, marine minister Pat the Cope Gallagher said he would be considering the recommendations of a review group specifically convened to look at access to emergency towing vessels:

“I believe that on the east coast we could enter into some arrangement after consultation with the UK authorities. Likewise on the west coast, we could look at something in consultation with France,” he said.

“I am very aware of the seriousness of the situation. The fact that we are a maritime State exposes us much more to such potential disasters,” he said.

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