The Department of Defence has confirmed that the number of cases it is defending against former Defence Forces staff over chemical exposure in the Air Corps has risen to eight.

Detail of the new case emerged as Sinn Fein prepares a motion calling for Oireachtas inquiry into the health and safety management at Air Corps headquarters at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

In January 2017, this newspaper revealed how the Department of Defence had received a number of protected disclosures from whistleblowers alleging serious shortcomings in how Air Corps maintenance staff were protected from exposure to cancer-causing substances.

We also reported how, at the time, six former members who suffer a range of chronic illnesses, took High Court action against the State over what they said was a failure to train them properly on the dangers of the chemicals they used, or to provide them with adequate personal protective equipment.

These six former members had received the opinion of a toxicopathologist who linked their illnesses to their working conditions.

The Department has now confirmed that the number of cases has risen to eight, and this newspaper understands that a number of others are considering similar action.

In 2015, whistleblowers submitted a complaint to the Health and Safety Authority, who inspected conditions at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel and threatened legal action against the Defence Forces unless it made improvements in how Air Corps staff are protected from the effects of the toxic chemicals.

The Air Corps accepted the recommendations, implemented a year-long programme of improvements, and the HSA has since closed the case.

However, Sinn Fein Defence spokesman, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, said investigations need to take place as to the conditions in Baldonnel prior to the HSA inspection, and whether they had a detrimental impact on the health of Defence Forces staff.

He is tabling a motion calling for a Special Committee to conduct relevant hearings into the matter and conduct a health survey of former Air Corps staff.

Mr Ó Snodaigh said his motion has the support of his own party, along with Fianna Fáil, Labour, People Before Profit, and Independents and that he is confident he has the numbers to have it passed in the Dáil.

Responding to this motion, the Department said: “The issues, which are the subject of the proposed motion, were examined by an independent reviewer appointed by the Minister [Paul Kehoe]. The Minister is considering the next steps and legal advice in the context of ongoing litigation.”

Mr Ó Snodaigh said Mr Kehoe has had the report by the independent reviewer since 2017 and has yet to act on its findings:

“The indications I’ve had from conversations with the Minister and the Department is that they won’t act on some of the issues raised because of court proceedings, including some in this motion such as helping people with their medical expenses and medical cards.

These wouldn’t prevent the Government, if they wish, from defending themselves in court action. It is a logical step to take if there are clusters of people suffering unexplained ailments or groups of people dying.

“The health authorities should investigate that regardless of proceedings, there could be others out there not aware of why they may be suffering health problems.”

By Joe Leogue
Irish Examiner Reporter