IMMIGRATION and work permit charges were dismissed against two Irish fishermen who used a marine agent to hire Filipino sailors to work on their Cork-based trawler.
Pat O'Mahony (51) and Leonard Hyde (63) had insisted to Cork District Court they understood the UK agency they hired would ensure full compliance with all Irish visa, work permit and passport regulations.
Both also vehemently insisted that the two Filipino fishermen involved were treated with every consideration and respect while they worked on the 'Labardie Fisher' trawler operating from Crosshaven, Co Cork in 2015.
The men told the two day trial that, had they any inkling the two Filipino sailors were not legally entitled to work in Ireland because they had entered via Belfast, they would never have contracted for them.
Judge Aingeal Ni Chonduin dismissed all charges against the men after the trial heard that other fishermen who used the same agency and route to bring Filipino sailors into Ireland to work on other trawlers had those workers even given safety training by State agencies.
One Irish trawler had used the same route and procedures to hire Filipino sailors ten years before the two Cork trawler operators.
Since 2015, an inter-department working group has overhauled work permit arrangements for Filipino nationals in the Irish fishing sector.
The judge said that "mind set" was a central issue to the case - and she had a doubt whether the men ever realised what they were doing was not in proper compliance with regulations.
Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (ISWFPO) official, John Tatten, told the trial that, as far as he understood in 2015, what the two men had done was entirely in compliance with regulations.
He pointed out that other fishermen in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England were engaged in widespread recruitment of Filipino sailors.
Another trawler operator, John Walsh, said he had three Filipino workers brought into Ireland before 2015 - and the trio are still working with him and in full compliance with work regulations given an industry overhaul two years ago.
"They (Filipinos) are the best people in the world- I would take a bullet for them. They are fantastic workers."
Mr Hyde and Mr O'Mahony described the ordeal they faced over the Garda investigation and subsequent prosecution as "a two year nightmare."
Cork District Court was packed with up to 30 fishermen from all over Cork, Kerry, Waterford and Donegal who wanted to support the duo.
All cheered as Judge Ni Chonduin dismissed all charges within minutes of the closing arguments.
"It was two years of absolute torment," Mr Hyde said.
"You have no idea - it was hard, very hard. Trying to fish and put up with all of this.
"We didn't do (what was alleged) and that was it.
"Health-wise it has been very stressful for all of us and our families. You could see that today - everyone was very stressed."
Mr O'Mahony said it had been two very difficult years.
"We are just very thankful it is all over, lads. We want to say thanks to everyone for the support. We just want to go back fishing now and do our jobs.
"The support (from fishermen) was brilliant - absolutely brilliant.
"It was a life-changer for us. We are used to fishing and not walking up these (courthouse steps). We never harmed anyone in our lives. So thank God that justice was done.
"I am in shock to be even here today, to be honest. I didn't knowingly facilitate this. The agent told us he took care of everything.
"I am not passing the blame. I just done what everybody else (in the fishing industry) had done. Bigger fool me," he said.
Defence solicitor David Browne said migrant worker issues were very complex and confusing at the time.
"Things were very difficult at that stage (2015). It was hard for lawyers let alone fishermen to know what was right and what was wrong.
"We are very relieved to have it all over. They are also very thankful for the support from all their colleagues, friends and families. They just want to put this matter behind them now," he said.
In statements to Gardai, Mr Hyde revealed that when Filipino national Demie Balbin Omol (40) got seriously ill just six weeks after arriving in Ireland in 2015, his wife wanted him to move to their home to recuperate.
While the man was in hospital, he was visited, provided with cash, credit to phone home and even pyjamas.
Both men also insisted to Gardai that the Filipinos were provided with whatever food they liked, cash for groceries and sundries, phone credit so they could call home, wifi, TV services and regular time off.
Both also had full control of their own passports and could leave the trawler at any time when it was berthed in Cork.
The trawler operators said they had entered a contract with a shipping agent, Diamond Marine, in 2015 for the supply of the two trained Filipino fishermen for a monthly fee of $1,075 per worker.
The agent then paid an agreed amount of this money to the men's families in the Philippines.
Both trawler operators also paid the agent a substantial upfront fee.
"We couldn't get any Irish staff," Mr O'Mahony told Gardai.
"There are 90pc of the Irish boats... who cannot get enough Irish staff. It was a gun to the head - we couldn't get Irish staff (for the trawler)."
Both men denied charges lodged following a Garda investigation into the use of migrant or non-EU workers within the Irish fishing industry.
Mr O'Mahony of Eltin's Wood, Kinsale, Co Cork and Mr Hyde of Four Winds, Weaver's Point, Crosshaven, Co Cork denied a charge of knowingly facilitating the entry into the
State in March 2015 of a person whom they knew or had reasonable cause to believe was an illegal immigrant or a person who intended applying for asylum.
They were also charged with employing a foreign national at Hugh Coveney Pier in Crosshaven between March and June 2015 without having an employment permit issued by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
The State had argued that two Filipino nationals working on the trawler 'Labardie Fisher' did not have valid work permits for Ireland.
Both had arrived in the UK and had then gone to Belfast in March 2015.
They were collected by Mr O'Mahony at Belfast Airport and driven, along with the shipping agent, south to Cork.
They began fishing duties immediately on arrival.
In a voluntary Garda interview on January 21 2016, Mr O'Mahony insisted they had been assured all visa, work permit and passport requirements had been looked after by the agent.
"As far as I was concerned, the agent did all that," he said.
Mr O'Mahony had no inkling about the lack of proper permits for the men - and even posted social media messages from Belfast Airport as he awaited their arrival.
His first act after collecting the men was to take them for a meal.
Mr Hyde, in his voluntary Garda statement, insisted he understood the agent had taken care of all such details and requirements.
Mr Hyde said he had never before contracted for non-EU workers.
Judge Ni Chonduin dismissed all the charges as she said there was nothing she could find in the contract agreed with the agent which said the agent's responsibilities ended at the UK border.
She also noted that a substantial sum of money had been paid to the agent by the Cork fishermen.
But the judge added that it was "surprising" legal advice had not been taken in respect of that agent's contract.