By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – Previously secret British government files relating to a still unexplained plane crash between Ireland and Wales 30 years ago have been promised to the Irish government in an effort to finally find out what happened, according to Marine Minister of State Hugh Byrne.
The Aer Lingus viscount St. Phelim crashed into the Irish Sea near the Tuskar Rock on March 24, 1968 with the loss of 61 passengers and crew.
Despite intensive investigations over the years, no cause for the crash has ever been established and Byrne believes the files may finally solve the mystery surrounding the tragedy.
There were calls for a reopening of the inquiry when relatives of the dead gathered for commemoration services in Wexford and Cork in March.
Byrne, a Wexford legislator, has been pressing for a new probe into the crash for years, claiming he has more political representations made to him down the years on this issue than on anything else.
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He believes the plane may have collided with a British military missile or target drone and that there was a coverup. These theories have been consistently denied by the British defense ministry since the accident.
Byrne said he has had a “frank” meeting with British Ambassador to Ireland Veronica Sutherland, at her request, about the crash.
“The meeting was very positive,” Byrne said. “She was most accommodating. She is intent on making various files available to us.
“The meeting was not the end of it. Hopefully, it is the beginning of something that will bring a conclusion to all of this. I think we have an opportunity now that we didn’t have before. It is a very important step and I am quite pleased the Ambassador came to seem me and was so positive.”.
Byrne said plans to have another meeting with the ambassador early next month.
Release of the files may take some time, as clearance will have to be sought from the various departments involved.
Byrne has been seeking access to British ministry of defense files concerning the operation of military firing ranges in Wales and details of military shipping and aircraft movements in the Irish Sea area on the day of the accident.
He said it would ease the minds of 61 families if the truth were established even at this late stage. “They are just as anxious to learn the truth today,” he said.
After the March commemorations, the relatives formed a support group, the Tuskar Tragedy Relatives Support Group, and have been lobbying government ministers for a reopening of the crash investigation.
Eyewitnesses at the time have claimed they saw an aircraft with red markings on it in the air over Wexford that day and there has been speculation that this was the target drone. There has also been speculation that it might have been a heat-seeking missile that was attracted by the viscount engines.
There have also been reports that British naval vessels involved in the search for the crashed plane had removed pieces of wreckage.
An official report, published in 1970 after an inquiry was held, failed to establish the cause of the initial upset to the St. Phelim, which resulted in the loss of control in the pitching plane of the aircraft and sent it spinning into the sea.
David O’Beirne, the son of the Viscount’s pilot, Barney O’Beirne, has recently been granted permission by the Department of Public Enterprise to have the taped conversations between the cockpit of the plane and London Air Traffic Control analyzed.
David, now 31, was only 26 months old when the Viscount went down. He has no memory of his father.
The fact that it took 10 weeks to locate the wreckage and that part of the tail was found seven miles away when it could not float, have fueled speculation about the cause of the crash.