Coast Guard Stations: Statements (Resumed).

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 188 No. 17

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Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House in the absence of the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. The Minister of State has, with words clothed in reason’s garb, endeavoured to make the worse appear the better reason. It is effectively a hatchet job for Valentia and Malin, with which no Senator on either side of the House accepts or agrees.

We should be promoting employment and social inclusion in these peripheral areas, an idea to which we would all subscribe. The removal of jobs from these areas to a proposed site 20 miles or so from Dublin makes a nonsense of Government decentralisation policy. I am informed that assistant secretary John Fearon’s report of October last was based on much out-of-date information and has been rebutted by the Inishowen Development Partnership, IDP, response. Facts referred to in the IDP rebuttal regarding power supply and communications have been confirmed by ESB Networks and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology report. Some Senators opposite are more familiar with that and no doubt they will elaborate on it.

The republic’s smallest area of sole responsibility is the Irish Sea and not the north west or south west coasts, where the reductions in staffing are being considered. The report in the Oban Times shows the reality of closing MRCCs and the cost in human lives lost at sea. The report of the British select committee reinforces this view. It also highlights the problem of accessing a supply of adequately trained staff.

The suggestion from Inishowen Development Partnership is that operational control should be maintained at Valentia and Malin Head, where years of experience support existing services and where there is a pool of qualified applicants available from the fishing industry for any staff positions that may be required in either of the two stations. That is very much the view from Valentia and the south west also.

[1295]Headquarters, stores, logistics, administration and training staff and facilities could be concentrated in an area north of Dublin, either Drogheda or the proposed new port facility at Bremore. A stand-by radio and MRCC facility could be included in this headquarters for training and emergency services. This should satisfy the Minister while still maintaining the core of excellence inherent in Valentia and Malin.

The total downgrade of Valentia and Malin could be described as decentralisation in reverse. Instead of planning to shut down these centres the Government should support proposals to upgrade the facilities at both, and the centres re-equipped and left in place. This was recommended by the Deloitte & Touche report we have been informed so much about.

Valentia and Malin Coast Guard stations have done a wonderful and sterling job in the service of the State as MRCCs where highly-skilled and dedicated staff deal with serious marine incidents. They have done so successfully over a long period. The arguments for moving the centres away from the coasts and into an urban location do not stand up. There is nothing substandard about the infrastructure in either location and there are no valid arguments based on electrical supply, broadband or cost effectiveness.

I strongly urge the Minister to accept what another Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, agreed in signing off on the Deloitte & Touche report recommendations to upgrade the two stations. Centralising the operations of Valentia and Malin to an urban location would be a total reversal of everything that this Government has been preaching about supporting peripheral areas.

Senator Joe O’Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole Zoom on Joe John O'Toole Hear, hear.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan It would also be a reversal of what all Senators, on both sides of the House, subscribe to. It flies in the face of common sense to remove such highly-trained and skilled people from these locations when they are already working extremely effectively and harmoniously. Valentia and Malin Coast Guard stations have a long service record and are extremely busy. They have dealt very effectively with many serious marine incidents over a long period.

It is good to see the Spanish ambassador in the Gallery because he knows full well the value of the Spanish-speaking proficiency of the people in these stations when they deal with so many Spanish trawlers and other Spanish personnel in sea incidents off our coast. I should also refer to Tadhg O’Donoghue, the recently retired chairman of ESB. He refuted very well the argument and gave his views strongly in favour of Valentia and Malin in an article in The Irish Times. He disputed very much the Irish Coast Guard’s case for their total downgrade.

[1296]I am reliably informed by seafarers and people who sail off the south, west and north coasts of our country that they have tremendous confidence in the Valentia and Malin rescue centres. My learned colleague, Senator Joe O’Toole, stated it is not just about technology or radar screens but about all of the many years of experience. It is about people who know the size of the swell two days after the waves have gone and who know the sounds of Dursey, Sceilig Mhichíl and Sceilig Bheag and the Blaskets, and can tell one from the other.

Senator Joe O’Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole Zoom on Joe John O'Toole That is the Senator’s quote now.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan Go raibh maith agat. The idea of taking away such valuable employment in these two wonderful areas is totally unacceptable. I hope that today the Minister of State will get a feel for the all-party consensus which exists in this House on this vitally important issue. It will become clear that we unanimously consider these closures to be totally unacceptable. We look forward to hearing from all our colleagues and I know from chatting informally with everyone here that we are of the one view.

There are sound building structures already in place, along with excellent personnel. The upgrading which might be required could be done while retaining both stations. As Senator O’Toole has already pointed out, it is about more than technology and data. I appreciate the Minister of State’s position and I will not say he was sent in here to do a hatchet job. He was sent in here and supplied with the information.

Senator Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy The hatchet job was done this morning in the Irish Examiner.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan The Senator has one minute left.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan I am winding up. I know this Minister of State as a reasonable man and I know he will faithfully report back the views of everyone in this House, which I believe are unanimous. I wish him well in doing so. The Minister of State’s heart and head will be with us at the close of this debate.

Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I welcome the Minister of State to speak on the Valentia Island marine rescue centre. I, too, honour the presence of the Ambassador of Spain, Dr. Jose de Carvajal, in the House today. He is here because the Valentia Island marine rescue centre is——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan I remind Members that it is not in order for them to refer to persons in the public or press galleries. That is a matter for the Chair.

[1297]Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly My apologies. Valentia Island marine rescue centre is the only one in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales or France that can communicate with Spanish-speaking sailors when their vessels are in difficulty. That is why the Ambassador is in the House today.

The 2002 Deloitte & Touche report made several recommendations for the new locations for marine rescue centres. The Minister responsible at the time, Deputy Dermot Ahern, agreed to expand Malin and Valentia. That report, recommendation and order were not acted upon for many years until a new Minister came into office. We are being told that the Valentia Island centre is not being closed. It is being wound down through natural wastage as men retire. Eventually only the noise of machines will be heard there. The staff will be centralised in urban locations on the east and west coasts.

The 16 page report issued last year to close the centres is full of lies and deception. The first lie is: “At present about half of the staff do not live in either home MRSC county.” There are 14 staff in Valentia, 11 of whom live in County Kerry. The second lie is: “New staff require access to schools, shopping and leisure facilities and employment for partners.” Of the 11 members of staff who live in County Kerry, ten of their spouses are in employment. Coláiste na Sceilige, the secondary school in Cahirciveen, sends 80% of its leaving certificate class to third level education. One cannot get better facilities.

The third lie concerns the electricity supply to which my colleague, Senator Coghlan referred. Tadhg O’Donoghue, former head of ESB, said that outages on the island should be no more nor less than in any other part of the country. His mother lives on Valentia Island and he is from the island.

Senator Joe O’Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole Zoom on Joe John O'Toole I think the Senator will be voting with us. He is saying all the right things.

Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Inside this document is another report from the Irish Coast Guard. If it is anything like a previous report in which the Coast Guard service supplied information we can be sure it will not be very accurate. In the report it is submitting to the Minister it has dropped the issue of the location of staff but continues to discuss infrastructure. Transmission Links Ireland, which has upgraded all the infrastructure for the electricity service in County Kerry, wrote a letter on 21 February 2008 refuting the assertion that electricity supply networks in the area are inadequate. We will investigate the statements of the Irish Coast Guard. These facts will go to south Kerry and Tadhg O’Donoghue who will respond to the contents of this report.

Since the 2002 Deloitte & Touche report was published 99% of the infrastructure for electricity in south Kerry has been upgraded and is better than it was at the time of the report. The gas thing about the report is that it contains the statement: [1298]“with modern equipment it would be possible to run the marine rescue coordination centre from one location anywhere in the country”. I know Valentia is an island and Malin is a long a way from Dublin but they are “anywhere in the country”. The report, however, states that the centre cannot be located in Valentia or Malin.

The fourth lie concerns the communications infrastructure. Tim Brosnan of Eircom said on 6 November 2007 that because of Eircom’s alternative routing policy there is durability within the system for the location in Valentia. There is, however, a gap — the last four miles which are badly served. Four dishes, two in Valentia and two at the Eircom station in Cahirciveen, could bridge that gap at a cost of €28,000. Senior management in the Irish Coast Guard can report that Valentia is not up to standard because of that gap. They have left a gap in the system so that they can recommend closing Valentia in the report. They are putting lives at risk when it would take only €28,000 to fix. It is a dereliction of their duty not to have bridged the gap knowing it is there.

Fexco is a world-class service centre for the likes of Western Union and other multinational companies that rely on communication. It employs more than 100 in Cahirciveen, relying on resilient broadband. The man in charge of its communication systems told me that the company would not have located there if it did not believe in the system. It does believe in the system and is going to expand, yet there is talk of closure.

The fifth lie states that: “locating the centres at either Valentia or Malin would require major construction work.” That is in the information given to the Minister of State today. I cannot speak about Malin but I have been inside the control room of Valentia Island Coast Guard station. It is huge. When the Dublin centre operated out of Valentia owing to reconstruction work in Dublin, it was able to run the entire east and west coast from that room, yet now the Coast Guard says that is not possible and the centre must be expanded. It does not need expansion because the big consoles will be taken out and touch screens installed, yet they continue reporting that the building facilities in Valentia are not up to standard.

If Valentia and Malin stations close, the service will lose experienced staff. Dublin deals with most of the Coast Guard traffic. What lay people call mayday distress calls, the Coast Guard calls urgency broadcasts. There were 258 mayday calls last year of which Malin dealt with 41, Dublin 52 and Valentia 165. Those guys will be put out to grass. The Coast Guard will hire new, young, fresh-faced fellows with no experience. They will not be able to speak Spanish.

When coastguard stations in the United Kingdom were closed between 1998 and 2002, deaths at sea increased by 28.1% because experienced staff were sent out to pasture. Inexperi[1299]enced staff in Belfast caused a death in Lough Rinn because in the stress of an emergency they inputted the wrong co-ordinates and the helicopter arrived at the wrong place. The loss of experienced staff will entail the loss of Spanish speakers in the Irish Coast Guard and marine rescue services and Spanish lives will be put at risk.

When the staff in Valentia asked for Spanish tapes to improve their Spanish, senior management told them it was the responsibility of the captain of the ship to have an English speaker on board. That is not much good to a Spanish trawler going down in high seas off the west coast. The staff got their own tapes and can speak Spanish but not because of senior management in the Irish Coast Guard service.

Senior management in the Irish Coast Guard supplied the information that has led to the threatened closure of Valentia and Malin. They have lied about the number of staff living in County Kerry and the employment available for partners in the area. They have lied about the electricity supply and the telecommunications within the system. There is an agenda at senior management level at the heart of this report that threatens the closure of Valentia and Malin as marine rescue centres. Those who supplied the false and misleading information are not public servants but are self-serving public officials.

Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney Well done.

Senator Joe O’Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole Zoom on Joe John O'Toole I wish to share my time equally with Senator Doherty.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Joe O’Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole Zoom on Joe John O'Toole The two previous speakers, who also hail from County Kerry, have discussed much of the detail on this issue. Consequently, I will make some broader points and will focus on some narrower ones thereafter. The saddest thing about the congregation of Members for this debate, with the honourable exception of Senator Paschal Donohoe, is that it reflects all that is wrong with regional development in Ireland. Whenever someone has a go at a particular locality in rural Ireland, the only Members who show up to discuss it are those from the affected county. Attendance at this debate should reflect all counties in the west of Ireland. This is what happens all the time and the west is being denuded because everyone is watching his or her own patch.

I consider this proposal to be an absolute outrage against the west coast. It constitutes yet another denuding of support, infrastructure and tradition from rural Ireland. As I am not familiar with the detailed facts as put forward by the Irish Coast Guard, I will not engage in an exchange on them. However, whatever the economic rights and wrongs of this proposal, it is wrong socially and in every other way.

[1300]I will tell a story. On Easter week of 1916, two signatories of the proclamation sent two men to Valentia. While I do not have time to go into details, they were sent down to break into Fitzgerald’s radio centre between Cahirciveen and Valentia, to steal radio systems they could use to communicate with the German ship that was bringing rifles to Banna Strand. The cultural and historical tradition extends back that far in that parish and is almost as old as radio. The Minister of State must understand that it is not simply a matter of the number of jobs.

I know both Malin and Valentia. A lovely new school has been located on the north side of Malin on the way towards Malin Head, which will lose numbers as a result of this measure. Every time one removes something from any small parish in the west, a ripple effect takes place throughout the community and everyone suffers in some way. Moreover, this is of great cultural significance and the points made by the previous speakers were highly impactful.

I am an offshore member of the RNLI and if I am sitting in Dursey Sound and wondering whether to stick my nose out into Kenmare Bay or to venture along the coast as far as Valentia, I would like to know that the person who speaking to me from Valentia is able to say what the swell is like, what kind of wind is blowing, whether there are many white tops in front of him or her or what is the story. Alternatively, if I am offshore and wish to get into Portmagee around Bray Head, I want someone who knows every inch of the area to be able to tell me it is a bit rough today, a south westerly is blowing up and it is dangerous and difficult. Anyone from any place from the south west to Malin who has ever suffered a night waiting for a lost boat to make contact and return home knows that the dependency on Malin and Valentia was an integral part of how we grew up. We grew up listening to old ships’ radios and while matters obviously have advanced since then, in the old days everyone tuned into channel 16 and listened to the marine services. These services are always present and know every inch of the region. Although the Minister of State’s speech made clear distinctions between the various aspects of the service, it is still part of us.

Above all however, this is decentralisation turned on its head. What is being done is completely wrong. There is a Minister with responsibility for the west, namely, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. What is that Department doing? All Members present have at some point fought for a small school, hospital, industry or whatever in their localities because they know that such facilities are the building blocks of a community. Anything that is removed from such a community ultimately causes suffering for all. Members do not wish to see such developments happening. This is a bigger issue that pertains to regionalisation, decentralisation and saving the west. It resembles the thinking [1301]underlying the opening of the Atlantic highway from Derry to Limerick and beyond and is similar to opening the western rail corridor. It pertains to those issues and forms part and parcel of an interdependency of infrastructures and community in those areas.

This development is happening before Members’ eyes. Last year, half of the Members of the Oireachtas more or less mentally cheered when the salmon fisheries were closed. While I know there were good reasons for decommissioning one third of the fishing fleet, if matters continue in this fashion there will be nothing left in the west. It will be like turning out the lights on rural Ireland. Every week another decision is made which takes more from that area. Members should be sufficiently brave and responsible to acknowledge that it will cost more to invest in the west of Ireland and that there is inequality of investment in such regional areas. What is happening in Malin and Valentia at present is a step backwards and I ask the Government to withdraw its position in this regard.

Senator Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty I thank Senator O’Toole for sharing his time with me and I agree with his comments. The Government has embarked on a ridiculous policy by trying to close the Valentia and Malin Head marine rescue co-ordination centres. When I first asked for a debate on this issue last October, a debate on Seagate, which was withdrawing from the north west, was taking place. I stated that given the economic climate in a globalised economy, one can understand that if businesses pull out of an area, one cannot always blame the Government. In this instance however, the Government can be blamed if it intends to withdraw services from area that deeply needs employment. I refer to counties Kerry and Donegal, which have the highest unemployment rates in the State. It is ridiculous that the Government has taken this position, which is not the position originally taken by it.

While I listened to the Minister of State’s speech today, a far better reply was delivered in 2003 when the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was asked a question on the closure of the Dublin centre and the transfer of responsibility to Valentia and Malin Head. He said:

The decision to transfer the services [of the marine rescue co-ordination centre] from Dublin was taken on foot of a study of the coast guard . . . undertaken by independent consultants. Reflecting advances in modern communications technologies, the consultants recommended that the coast guard should operate two control centres as opposed to the three centres that exist at present. This approach will have the effect of achieving significant cost savings [by keeping Valentia and [1302]Malin Head open], thus enabling other elements of the coast guard service to be developed, which in turn will lead to further improvements in our marine emergency response services.

He continued by stating the objective of the Department was “that the remaining two centres at Valentia and Malin [Head] will be developed to handle all emergencies around [the] coast, on inland waters, . . . mountain, cliff and cave rescue”. Significantly, he stated, “communications technology today is such that the geographical location of the co-ordination centres is less important now than in the past” in this context. He also added, “Government policies on decentralisation from Dublin are . . . relevant to this decision”.

What has happened in the past five years since the then Minister made those remarks? What has made the Government change its mind? Nothing has happened in respect of the upgrading and transfer of the aforementioned services to those two areas. I agree with the point made by Senator Coghlan when he stated that when one closes or fails to expand centres, people’s lives are put at risk. The British House of Commons Select Committee on Transport recently has blamed continuing high marine casualty deaths on the closure of marine rescue co-ordination centres. Members should note this is not simply an issue of regional development but also is an issue of safety for those on our seas.

I attended a public meeting on Malin Head, which was packed with standing room only. The meeting heard from a range of marine interests, from search and recovery to people who worked within the Malin Head marine rescue co-ordination centre, as well as different people who worked in Coast Guard stations and people from the islands. They are appalled at the Government’s decision. The Government needs to reverse its stated position on these stations.

A Fianna Fáil Senator referred to the lies in this report and we have the documentation. The report presented to the Minister is not factual. Regardless of this, the Minister has accepted lie after lie. I am disappointed he is not present in the Chamber to take this matter. It is time for him to come forward and say that he will continue to keep the commitment his predecessor gave in the Dáil in 2003 to the residents of Malin Head and Valentia Island .

The Government will say that this change will not result in any jobs being lost and that none of the staff will be forced to move from Valentia Island or Malin Head. That may be true but when staff seek promotion, they will not be offered it unless they move to the new centres. When members of staff retire their positions will not be replaced. In effect, this decision will result in jobs being loss in Inishowen and Valentia. That is unacceptable and I cannot stand for it.

[1303]I ask the Minister to echo the words spoken by the Leader of this House prior to Christmas when he asked for all-party consensus on this issue to oppose the decision by the Government to remove the Malin Head and Valentia marine co-ordination centres, a position echoed by the Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil. The Minister said that he will take on board the views of Members in this debate when he makes a decision. I ask him to seriously take them on board and not merely use this debate as a paper exercise.

Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney It is not often we speak on an issue with one voice in terms of cross-party and cross-county support. We are all saying the same thing. These centres have been under attack by some body or group for many years. I have fought left, right and centre in my corner for them for many years. I would like to think that my intervention in the past helped ensure the outcome referred to in the earlier statements about the 2003-04 decision to not only maintain but upgrade the two operation centres at Malin Head and on Valentia Island. It is terrible that another attack is being launched on two fundamental sections of our communities.

Senator O’Toole spoke about the expansion of areas. I was responsible for ensuring a major upgrade of the school in 2007, to which he referred, when it was concerned about being closed. Major investment has been made in developing the pier and crèche facilities in Malin Head. Other Departments are also investing in Malin Head and I have been at the core of ensuring such investment. I have also been at the core of ensuring that the station at Malin Head would not be closed during recent years. We received a report which recommended that it, as well as the station on Valentia Island, should be upgraded. My comments are based on my experience in regard to the station at Malin Head and in solidarity with the position being taken by those in the station on Valentia Island.

I want the Minister of State to bring back the message to Government that if this service can be provided anywhere in the country, then it should be left where it is. The stations on Valentia Island and at Malin Head can deliver this service. I will go through some of the extensive detail at my disposal regarding the position of Malin Head in order to prove that the same untruths that were told about the station on Valentia Island were told about the station at Malin Head. When I asked the people in the area surrounding Malin Head for a rebuttal of the report, they came together and put the information down on the paper. We are not talking about an emotional argument. This is not about emotions but about facts. We do not want our area downgraded because factually, it can sustain what is required and the local community want to ensure this.

It is nonsense to talk about the need for a second facility to be located close to a first [1304]facility. If one were to travel out of Dublin between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., it would take two hours to travel from one side of the city to the other. One could travel a fair distance from Malin Head in two hours. If a situation is an emergency, a helicopter will be used and it does not matter where one is in that context.

The Minister of State said that should a decision be taken to move the service from the stations on Valentia Island and at Malin Head, the Department would examine the retention of the existing staff to operate radio watches from their existing stations. I ask for no half measures. The Government should leave what is well enough alone. The only problem to date has been that the stations are run down, but that is not due to the people of Malin Head or the people on Valentia Island but because of the lack of central in-house investment promised more than five years ago and signed off by the then Minister.

Fundamentally, the argument of moving everything in this regard to Drogheda and seeking a west coast location is a nonsense. Undoubtedly, many services can be decentralised to Drogheda, including parts of the marine section of the Department. I speak on foot of information supplied to me by people who know the position a little better than I do.

The idea of a new radio station and a marine rescue co-ordination centres, MRCC, in Drogheda is not supported by any realistic rationale. A chart of VHF sites in my possession clearly shows that the Drogheda MRCC would be situated less than 80 miles from the Northern Ireland MRCC at Orlock Head. The chart also indicates the restricted area of responsibility of the Irish Coast Guard in the Irish Sea. Approximately 80% of the area is covered by the UK services under the existing agreements on marine rescue co-ordination. Conversely, the Irish area of responsibility in the north west stands to be increased significantly due to recent changes in legislation, for example, marine pollution, etc. The Republic’s smallest area of sole responsibility is the Irish Sea, not the west coast where the reductions in staffing are being considered. Any increase in oil exploration within Irish waters will be concentrated in the west and north west, namely, the areas closest to Malin Head.

That is not to say there is not a function for a new station in Drogheda. A headquarters stores, logistics, administration and training of staff could be operated from such a facility in Drogheda or at the new port at Bremore. We are being told that this service can be run from anywhere, but that is anywhere except Valentia Island or Malin Head.

I have a letter from the ESB. I do not know what details were included in the Minister’s report in terms of the dates to which he referred. The letter states:

Our records show that there were four interruptions in electricity supply to the Coast [1305]Guard . . . in Malin Head in 2007. Two of these faults were during storm conditions in January, there was planned interruption in April and a fault in November. Excluding storm damage, this performance was better than the national average.

Since the completion of the Network Renewal Programme . . . and the installation of a medium voltage submarine cable between the Isle of Daogh and Lagg in 2005, the quality of the electricity supply in . . . Malin [Head] . . . had improved greatly.

In future years, ESB Networks expect the continuity of supply in Malin to be at the national average.

That letter was from Brian Hegarty, area manager Letterkenny, ESB Network Services. Is he a liar? I do not believe he is. He is closest to the ground and I believe he knows the facts.

The same type of back-up service exists in terms of broadband infrastructure. I would like to go into the detail of that, but suffice to say that one of the greatest clouds that hung over our area was the demise of the Fruit of the Loom operation. However, arising from that a task force was set up and it identified telemarketing and call-centre operations as a possible source of job opportunities. Much work was put into that and many groups came together and a substantial rollout of broadband infrastructure has occurred, even in the recent past.

One of the greatest problems we face is that the Department considers this to be a 26-county Ireland with a massive type of Berlin Wall surrounding the rest of the country. Fortunately, normal people like myself live in the north east and we interact on a 32-country island basis. If I were employed in Malin Head and lived in Derry, I would challenge some Members, such as Senator Doherty, to travel to Malin Head in the time I could travel there from Derry. I would say that I would arrive 30 or 40 minutes ahead of his arrival from where he is based.

  4 o’clock

We are being accused of not living within the county. Someone needs to examine the geography of the region. Malin Head is 40 minutes from the fourth largest centre on the island of Ireland. We have pointed out to the Minister and Mr. Fearon that Malin Head is close to institutes of technology in Letterkenny and Derry and universities in Derry, Limavaddy and Coleraine. It is an hour and half from Belfast. Regardless of whether people are from the area or travelling to it, they have access to good educational qualifications and have great potential, but that is not recognised because the facilities are across the Border. We do not recognise borders in our area; we work in conjunction with the facilities in place. There are fundamental reasons people might live in Derry but work in Donegal.

The main point I want to put forward is that the arguments concerning the ESB supply, broad[1306]band deficiency and that people in the area will not take up jobs are not factual. We have had major infrastructural changes in recent years. A decommissioning process will take young people away from the biggest whitefish fleet in the country which is based in Greencastle, very close to Malin Head. These people will need new employment opportunities. The Department has changed the regulations governing the qualifications for working in these centres. These people will be able to work there. Everyone in my area is disgusted with being undermined by a process of decentralisation. How can we sell the idea of decentralisation to Buncrana when the Government says that Inishowen is not the place to go? This is head about tail stuff and it needs to be reversed.

Senator Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Billy Kelleher, to the House and congratulate him on his appointment as Minister of State. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the House for organising this debate. There have been some fine fiery debates in this House during this term and I am sure this debate will not be any different.

This issue is of the utmost importance for the people of Valentia Island and Malin Head. I commend the manner in which people in both areas have campaigned with honesty and dignity. They have succeeded in bringing this issue to national prominence. I congratulate them on their efforts and I assure them of the Labour Party’s ongoing support for them in their campaigns.

I express my complete opposition to any proposal to close these stations under the Government’s restructuring plan for the Irish Coast Guard. I suggest it is not the Coast Guard stations that need restructuring but rather the Government because of its plain lack of support for rural Ireland. I call on the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to reverse immediately the Government’s plan to shut down transmissions from these maritime coastal stations and to give a clear and unambiguous guarantee that Valentia in County Kerry and Malin Head in County Donegal will continue to operate as Coast Guard radio stations, that no jobs will be lost and that no employees will be redeployed elsewhere.

This matter confirms my long-held belief that this Government has lost touch with rural Ireland. The Minister’s plan to close these world-renowned stations and build a new station in a yet to be announced location makes no sense. There is no financial or geographic reason for it and safety at sea will not be enhanced if the plan goes ahead. The idea goes against the 2002 consultants’ report which put forward the option of upgrading both Valentia and Malin Head stations. It seems the Minister is intent on carrying on his tradition of going headlong into a battle without first properly thinking through the feasibility of his Department’s plan. He would do well to take less notice of civil servants in Dublin [1307]and listen instead to party colleagues and others throughout the country, people who represent coastal and maritime constituencies such as mine — Cork South-West.

Following the Shannon-Heathrow debacle, one would have thought the Minister would have learned a lesson but sadly this is not the case. Lest we forget, this is the same Minister who invented the idea of electronic voting, who fought tooth and nail with fishermen and endeavoured to destroy the fishing industry in this country, who contemplated the reintroduction of third level college fees, who also tried to take hundreds of thousands of learner drivers off the road over one bank holiday weekend without providing adequate driving test places. Now he wants to endanger the lives and livelihoods of another 40 families in some of the most rural places in the country. It strikes me that the Minister is like a kamikaze pilot intent on flying into something and blowing it up.

Coming from a coastal constituency like Cork South-West, I am especially concerned about Valentia. I am acutely aware of the importance of this radio station to coastal and fishing communities all around the south-west coast. I think of the fishing communities in Castletownbere, Union Hall, Baltimore, Kinsale and so on. Valentia’s proud history as an important centre of communications has been sustained since 1858 when the first messages were sent across the Atlantic.

The Valentia Coast Guard station is the busiest in the country when it comes to dealing with serious marine incidents and its staff are highly skilled. One does not just make a decision to end all this, especially when one considers the Deloitte & Touche consultants’ report, paid for by taxpayers, which recommended the complete opposite of what the Minister is trying to do.

I refer to what a Fianna Fáil county councillor in County Kerry, Paul O’Donoghue, said — he happens to be the brother of the Ceann Comhairle: “You don’t close these facilities, you enhance them.” The Minister would do very well to listen to his party colleagues in Kerry. More stations of this calibre are needed rather than closure and downgrading.

The UK coastguard service has 19 stations and covers almost 18,000 km of coastline, leaving about 900 km of coastline per station. If the Minister’s plan goes ahead, the Irish Coast Guard will be downgraded to two stations and each station will cover a coastline of 3,700 km. This is a frightening statistic and it cannot be allowed to happen. At its most basic, this plan has a major flaw and it highlights the Government’s complete hypocrisy regarding its regional development policy. In the era of decentralisation the Minister is going against the grain and centralising these facilities. This will have significant consequences not only for the 35 to 40 jobs at stake but also for entire coastal communities. The removal of these jobs is [1308]a vote of no confidence in the south west and north west. It is equivalent to pulling the rug out from under efforts to create jobs in rural Ireland. It is another example, as if one were needed, that this Government is bowing to the advice of civil servants and ignoring the needs of rural Ireland.

I commented earlier on the dignity and honesty of those in these two communities who are campaigning to stop these closures, and it is a pity the same could not be said about the Minister, with his undisclosed reports, the mistruths being bandied about and the eloquent points made about the same inaccuracies by Senators on the Government side. Members have been informed about the poor electricity supply, the lack of technology, reduced access to universities and no shops for the staff. This is all nonsense. It is unbelievable that the same people who are listening to this advice are the same people who have been in Government for the past 11 years.

I am not for a moment taking from the genuine and sincere remarks made by Senators on the Government side but another point needs to be made about the dual role of Government party Members in both Houses who serve as Opposition and Government at the same time. My colleague, Deputy Willie Penrose, spoke in the other House during the Private Members’ motion on agency workers:

We will no longer tolerate Deputies [and Senators] who are all things to all people in their constituencies but do not express the views of [their constituents] when they get an opportunity to make decisions on important matters in the [House] ... We do not want any nice token speeches from members of this Government.

We want action. It is not good enough for these people to go to a constituency or head out to the plinth and say one thing while their voting record proves they towed the party line. The late Deputy Jim Kemmy spoke to a Fianna Fáil Limerick Deputy about an issue of significant importance to Limerick. The same Deputy went on to become promoted in many Governments since that time. He accused him of being Mighty Mouse in Limerick and a church mouse in Dáil Éireann.

In the 11 years of this Government we have seen many policies which have denigrated rural Ireland. The rural creameries and the post offices are all gone. The Government, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, is now trying to exterminate the rural pharmacies and shut them down as well. To add a sense of irony, a Government party Senator appeared on “The Week In Politics” recently and made a point which I had made in this House when this decision was announced. It was that 20 jobs in rural Ireland was the equivalent of 2,000 jobs in Dublin. If that logic were to be applied, it would be equal to a loss of about 22,000 jobs for the Dublin area, which is a frightening statistic. However, no one is batting an eyelid.

[1309]Things have gone from bad to worse in the area of employment. According to information available to me from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the total number of unemployed in my area between the last Friday of 2004 and the last Friday of January 2008, has risen by 228 people. This would also be representative of other areas. I was unable to obtain figures for my town because the social welfare office in Dunmanway has been shut down by this Government. I have raised this matter on the Adjournment with the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, and I have tabled several questions to the Minister, Deputy Cullen. Trying to get information is like trying to get blood out of a turnip.

I reiterate my three questions for the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. Can he give Members a clear and unambiguous guarantee that Valentia in County Kerry and Malin Head in County Donegal will continue to operate as Coast Guard radio stations? Can he guarantee Members that no jobs will be lost and can he also guarantee the House that no employees will be deployed elsewhere? My party fully supports the campaign to save these marine radio stations and we ask the Minister to consider rural Ireland and the coastal communities who are at the pin of their collars and fighting an uphill battle for survival. We ask the Minister to consider the employees and their families and we ask him to make a stand against the anti-rural bias so clearly evident in so many Government decisions. There is cross-party agreement in this House for the points I have just made. Every Senator, Government and Opposition, is singing from the same hymn sheet. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, would do very well to listen.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill I would like to read from a letter I received from the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, in recent weeks concerning the Malin Head and Valentia marine rescue co-ordination sub-centres. I wrote to the Minister impressing upon him the urgency to review the impending decision in light of recommendations made by Department of Transport officials. He stated in his reply:

My ambition is to put in place a service which will meet the needs of this country well in the 21st century.

The communications system is the backbone infrastructure on which Coast Guard operations depend. It is essential that it is of high quality, efficient, effective and that it provides value for money. I am concerned at the state of the present equipment and have confirmed that a €2 million investment in essential equipment should proceed without any further delay. I have also confirmed that this equipment should be sufficient to operate two fully manned Co-Ordination centres. I have also confirmed that locating one on the east coast and one on the west coast is the preferred [1310]option and that the east coast centre should be co-located with the HQ. These decisions were made against the background of a study completed by Deloitte and Touche in 2002.

Following that study I understand a decision was taken by the then Minister not to proceed on the basis of the recommendations in the study. However, I understand that in October 2007 the assistant secretary in the Department issued his report which was based on much out of date information which has been rebutted by the Inishowen Development Partnership. In its response to the assistant secretary’s recommendations it referred to facts regarding the electricity supply to Inishowen, the broadband service and some socio-economic issues. I refer to a letter sent to the Inishowen Development Partnership from the area manager of the Electricity Supply Board in Donegal, which stated:

Our records show that there were four interruptions in electricity supply to the Coast Guard Station in Malin Head in 2007. Two of these faults were during storm conditions in January, there was a planned interruption in April and a fault in November.

The most important line in the letter was as follows: “Excluding storm damage, this performance was better than the national average”. This would suggest that the references in the assistant secretary’s report to out of date ESB equipment is not true. I would like the matter to be reviewed and for us to receive a response.

Senator Keaveney covered the issue of broadband. Broadband is readily available within 500 m of the Coast Guard station. Broadband is also readily available on a radial broadband programme from Limavady, which is just across the sea in the North of Ireland. Broadband is not an issue and electricity supply is not an issue. The socio-economic issues referred to in the report that went to the Minister and on which this decision is based, must be disregarded. The findings of that report must also be disregarded.

The idea of a new station in Drogheda is not supported by any rational argument. The chart of VHF sites clearly shows that the Drogheda station would be sited less than 80 miles from the Northern Ireland station at Orlock Head. The chart also indicates the restricted area of responsibility of the Irish Coast Guard in the Irish Sea. Approximately 80% of this area is covered by the UK services under existing agreements on marine rescue co-ordination. This means that a station on the east coast would not cover the total sea area, whereas on the west coast and in the northern area the next port of call is Iceland or America. There is a vast geographical area that is not covered, whereas the east coast has the coverage from the UK authorities working in conjunction with the services here in Ireland.

The Inishowen Development Partnership, the local partnership in Senator Keaveney’s area in [1311]the peninsula of Inishowen, is fighting on the ground to retain the services at Malin Head. The partnership outlines that Malin Head and Valentia have years of experience of supporting existing services and have a pool of qualified applicants readily available from the fishing industry if the need arises in those Coast Guard stations. Headquarters, stores, logistics, administration and training of staff could be concentrated in a facility in Drogheda as proposed. However, the Malin Head and Valentia facilities should remain. We are dealing with geographically dispersed areas, a fishing fleet and a tourism sector. We are talking about pleasure craft coming into areas like Killybegs and the fishing areas around the Donegal offshore islands. As pleasure craft use those facilities on a regular basis, it is essential to have cover in those areas.

As late as this week the Malin Head station assisted in the rescue of two lifeboat men who were winched to safety on Sunday morning from the sea approximately 600 m from Bundoran. That rescue was co-ordinated by the Malin Head Coast Guard. I am glad to acknowledge that it was a successful rescue. Such rescues are vital for the people who live in the west and north west. The Malin Head Coast Guard facility is located in an ideal environment to work in close co-operation with the authorities in Northern Ireland. I strongly agree with all Senators from both sides of the House that the Minister should revisit the proposed decision regarding this matter. The recommendations of an assistant secretary may be well meant coming from the viewpoint from the 2002 report. However, in my view and the view of the local development association in Inishowen and the local community they are based on out of date information, which simply does not stand up.

The Inishowen Development Partnership’s comments are primarily based on information relating to Malin Head. However, common ground exists between the Malin Head and Valentia stations, as they are both fishing areas with a large number of fishermen and considerable activity at sea. The report by the assistant secretary appears to be based on out of date information regarding the electricity supply, communications infrastructure and socio-economic shortcomings of the area. The assistant secretary’s report, which appears to be informing the Minister’s opinion, should be reviewed. The Minister should consider the retention of the stations at Valentia and Malin Head. If there is a need to have a headquarters in Drogheda, so be it. Let us have the headquarters in Drogheda or in a location close by as proposed. However, the services should be retained in Donegal and Kerry. The political viewpoint coming from today’s debate should inform the Minister’s decision.

I was glad to see in the last line of the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, [1312]that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will take into account all the views expressed by Senators here today. I call on the Minister to do that. He should ensure these services are retained in order that communities in the west, including the north-west, can rest assured that the current service provision will remain. The Government’s regionalisation policy should be maintained.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information on Paschal Donohoe Zoom on Paschal Donohoe I wish to express my party’s support for the objectives outlined by previous speakers, including regionalisation and balanced regional growth. It is ironic that I am speaking on this matter now because the first opportunity I had to address the House was to discuss the withdrawal of services at Shannon Airport. I now find myself talking about something that has all the hallmarks of the Shannon issue. On the one hand, we have the Government’s stated objective of the need to deliver balanced regional development, which is laid out in the national development plan and all Government statements on this issue. On the other hand, however, we clearly see that the objective is not being delivered. If balanced regional development is important, surely it is most important for smaller communities that are dependent on public sector enterprise and employment. This is clearly so in the case of the two communities under discussion.

I have been struck by the number of knowledgeable people, including maritime safety experts and local representatives, who have provided information on the superb role these institutions have provided in protecting seafarers over the years. For that reason alone it is evident that both Coast Guard stations need to be kept open. The political point must be emphasised in this respect. Senators are correct in saying there is cross-party agreement on the matter but the responsibility for this decision sits squarely on the Government side of the House. We are all agreed on the points that have been made. I was struck by the forensic analysis offered by the three Government Senators and the clear passion that drove their arguments but the Opposition is not in a position to make a decision on the matter — that is the Government’s responsibility. Those privileged to be elected or appointed to this House on the Government side, and who can take credit for many wonderful things that have been delivered in their constituencies, have a clear responsibility to reverse this decision. In other debates, I have often heard references to the mystical power of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, and I am sure the Green Party’s parliamentary party meetings and those of the other party in Government are no less mystic or powerful. However, that power is clearly lacking when it is needed to reverse a decision upon which vulnerable communities depend.

I was struck by the poised and poetic contribution made by Senator Daly in which his passion [1313]was evident. He talked about the lies that were being produced by a semi-State body, which is very strong language to use. He said that organisation was lying in the evidence it was producing. If that is true, and the Senator appeared to produce evidence to back up his assertions, what makes it even more striking is that a Minister is willing to act on evidence that every Opposition speaker has comprehensively rebutted. What does that say about the quality of decision making in Cabinet on issues such as this? What does it say about the quality of decision making by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey?

Senator Coghlan provided a strong analysis and a rebuttal of all the Government side’s points. That was compounded by the various points that have been made so far in this debate. If the privilege of serving in Government is confined to the other side of the House, the responsibility lies with that side also. I will be unflinching in pointing out that while cross-party opinion is valuable and welcome in dealing with local community issues, the responsibility for dealing with them lies with the Government side and particularly the Senators who have made those points. If they are going to claim credit for doing good work in their constituencies, they must also carry the can for things that are not going so well and about which those in the community feel strongly.

While I do not wish to repeat what others have said, I want to draw attention to two of the points that have been made so far. I have spent some time trying to understand this issue and have spoken to people about it in order that I could make a strong contribution. The first point concerns the Minister of State’s remarks about the quality of service provided by Eircom. He offered that as a rationale for decisions made concerning the two Coast Guard stations but one cannot blame those institutions for Eircom’s inability to supply broadband and the telecommunications infrastructure they need. It seems perverse to say that just because Eircom and other bodies cannot provide the services needed by these Coast Guard stations, we will blame those centres for it and shut them down.

The second point, which was strongly made by Senator O’Toole, concerns the value of experience in these matters. Senators have referred to data from the United Kingdom about the ability to save lives being dependent on the number of centres and their relationship to the areas covered. That point seems to be self-evident but why is it not clear to the Minister who is making this decision? Why should our heritage, local expertise, ability to understand local conditions and the provision of safe navigation be thrown to the wind by a decision to close these Coast Guard stations? Expert opinion on both sides of the House has strongly rebutted this decision, which begs the question as to why this is happening? How can one reverse the clear recommendations of a 2002 consultant’s report which was supported by taxpayers’ money? The reason is money. In [1314]recent months, the House has debated cutbacks in the HSE and other public services, but the common thread is money. The obvious reason this is happening is that the Department of Transport is examining budgetary matters and must find ways of recouping the money it has wasted in other areas. In doing so, however, it will neglect the value of local experience and heritage which other Senators have indicated so well. That is a political decision but if one is going to accept responsibility for how well the economy is doing and the fine work of local representatives in their constituencies, one must also take action to reverse a bad policy-making decision which will have a negative impact on coastal communities and others reliant on Coast Guard services for safety at sea.

Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney The purchase of two new sites in urban areas is bound to be much more expensive than upgrading the existing sites at Malin Head and Valentia.

Senator Dan Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle Zoom on Dan Boyle It is rare to hear the House speak in one voice on such an issue, especially one that could be used for narrow party political purposes. While some attempt has been made to remind the Government of its responsibilities in this area, it is fair to say all contributions have supported the retention of both Coast Guard stations. That is how it should be because logic does not seem to have had a significant part in this decision. We had the 2002 report and we had an agenda that was fostered elsewhere.

Senator Ó Dómhnaill referred to the last page of the Minister of State’s contribution. I too note the references to the Department of Finance and the efficiency review that all Departments are now required to undertake. I suspect this is a more likely rationale for what is being proposed and what certain people in the Department would like to happen. The decision to have one station where two existed previously represents not merely a reverse decentralisation proposal but a rationalisation. It is proposed that people operating in Malin Head and Valentia Island be reallocated to a new location where property prices are higher than in either counties Donegal or Kerry and where the quality of life in terms of access to schools and trying to get from A to B is commensurately worse than in those areas. This makes no sense in the context of a commitment to Government policies that seek to improve the quality of life of all citizens on this island.

I caution against an accountant’s approach in looking at the assets of a Department and how they should be deployed. I have other reasons for asking that the Coast Guard stations at Valentia Island and Malin Head be maintained. I represent an area that is coastal in its own right even though it is an urban area. As a Munster man, I have an affinity with the Kerry operation. Furthermore, my father is a Donegal man, a merchant sailor and an islander. I like to think I have some affin[1315]ity for the maritime history that brought about the construction of lighthouses and Coast Guard stations throughout the State. Their locations were chosen precisely according to where they needed to be located. These were the locations where maritime traffic took place and where those with an expertise in maritime life lived and continue to live. The proposal that this history, expertise and valuable maritime heritage can somehow be uprooted and relocated in a place like Drogheda is beyond any consideration of what we are as an island nation.

I appeal to the Minister of State and the departmental officials to commit to an active reconsideration of this decision. It represents not merely a reversal of the 2002 Deloitte & Touche report but a reversal of the active programme of investment in the Irish Coast Guard that took place from the start of the decade onwards. When I had the privilege of representing the constituency of Cork South-Central, Oysterhaven was part of that constituency. It has since moved to Cork South-West and a new, modern station has been constructed, although it does not perform exactly the same function as the stations at Malin Head and Valentia Island. Since then, however, other Coast Guard stations such as Crosshaven, which remains in Cork South-Central, have been kicked from pillar to post in their efforts to secure badly needed resources in terms of upgraded facilities and a new location. I would prefer if ministerial and departmental efforts went into maintaining a programme of work which was proving successful. As well as maintaining the Coast Guard stations in places such as Malin Head and Valentia Island, we must also upgrade the Irish Coast Guard service itself. Dozens of Coast Guard stations require upgrading and to provide for that would represent an economic saving in the long term.

We must acknowledge our maritime heritage and the economic value of being an island nation and the associated dependence on the sea. I spoke recently to the harbour master in Cork Harbour who explained to me a concept that he and other harbour masters are trying to promote, that of the highways of the seas. He told me that fish are being landed by Spanish ships in Bantry, taken by container truck from Bantry to Rosslare, put on a ferry to Pembroke and put on the road to Southampton before finally being put on a ferry to France and driven to Spain. One can only imagine the carbon footprint. This is illustrative of the illogical nature of our transport and maritime policies. It is indicative of a small mindedness and a failure to look to the future in attempting to solve the problems of the present. Until we stop thinking and acting like this, I fear for future maritime policy.

All this is before we come to the issues of rural development that have been the focus of debate today. It is unquestionably important that facilities such as those at Malin Head and Valentia [1316]Island are maintained because there is a need for critical mass in the communities in which they are located. They serve as focal points and places of employment and provide the expertise in terms of justifying all the other elements of social infrastructure in Malin Head and Valentia Island. Our policies should encourage their maintenance and ensure the people who work there can remain in the communities. The primary argument for their retention is economic. In this instance, however, there is no evidence of a genuine maritime policy or if there is such a policy, it operates in an entirely illogical way.

I return to the subject of rural development policy because it is an issue in which I am greatly interested as a consequence of my own family history. Although I am from Cork, I am more familiar with Malin Head than with Valentia Island. I know the landscape and the communities who live there. In economic terms, as other speakers observed, a decision of this type has an immeasurably greater impact for the relevant communities than, for example, large-scale factory closures in urban areas. As political representatives, and as a Government, we cannot and should not allow such decisions to be made.

The only hope I have is that by the end of this debate, the single mindedness with which all the contributions have been articulated in this Chamber will be heeded and the necessary reversal of the decision taken. If not, I fear it will be the start of a process where similarly stupid mistakes will be made. If this House is to have any impact and relevance, I hope the voices that have been raised today will achieve that change.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy John McGuinness): Information on John McGuinness Zoom on John McGuinness The debate over the last couple of hours has raised many interesting and useful points. I assure the House that I will pass the Senators’ extensive comments on the future of Malin Head and Valentia Island Coast Guard stations to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey. It is significant that a debate on maritime safety is taking place at national level. Regardless of our differences of opinion or emphasis about how best to proceed, we are seeking to improve the level of maritime safety around our coast. The Minister has repeatedly indicated his intention to make improvements in this regard. I understand that the proposed improvements range from new legislation to improvements in resources, training and equipment and the provision of new infrastructure. It will be important to ensure that investment takes place in a context in which the greatest benefits can be achieved from the financial commitments which are made.

It is universally agreed that investment in a new integrated communications system is necessary and desirable. The need to develop modern, efficient and flexible co-ordination centres not only involves the provision of such a system, but [1317]also the provision of support accommodation such as training rooms and other infrastructure, which will have to be developed with security, functionality, sustainability, resilience and flexibility in mind. We will have to pay attention to the potential future use of the building, in the context of local facilities and its strategic location. It is essential that communications centres are established on the east and west coasts and equipped to a standard that enables the Coast Guard to meet future challenges. Considerable building work will be required in the locations which are chosen. I assure the House that the work that is undertaken will not have any negative impact on the volunteers who respond to emergencies at a local level. The disruption to staff will be minimised regardless of where the new centres are located. I emphasise the deep appreciation of the work done by those working in the centres. The valuable role played by the staff of the rescue co-ordination centre, who plan and co-ordinate responses to marine emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is also recognised.

Comparisons have been made in correspondence to the international benchmarking of the watch officers. Such officers in the UK are paid a maximum of £18,500, compared with a maximum of €51,000 for officers of the same grade in the Coast Guard. While the UK has no marine rescue sub-centres, it has 18 marine rescue co-ordination centres, with approximately 450 staff, to cover an area of responsibility of 2 million sq. km. The UK employs an average of 25 staff per centre, which is similar to this country’s proposed two-centre model. When an incident arises, the staff who listen for distress signals and monitor automatic alerting systems day and night are the first point of call. They seek the relevant information from appropriate sources, assess and task the search and rescue resources needed to deal with the incident, ascertain a vessel’s location, condition and intention and, if appropriate, designate and advise an on-scene co-ordinator.

The Minister for Transport is determined that the emergency management expertise that has been developed will not be lost during the process of modernising the Coast Guard. He is keen to ensure that it is retained for future generations. I reiterate that at an individual level, no one will lose his or her job in this process. Nobody will be forced to move to a new location. This policy presents challenges, as it does in the decentralisation programme. Such challenges are being discussed with the staff involved and will be overcome during the ongoing consultation with them. The sequence of this change was outlined to staff at formal meetings which were held in Malin Head, Valentia Island and Dublin in November 2007. The next step in the sequence will be to identify the west coast location and to ascertain the interest of staff in that location. Staff have been advised that a clearer picture will emerge at that point. Formal discussions with staff represen[1318]tatives on any changes that might arise will then commence. The director of the Coast Guard has been in ongoing informal contact with the relevant union branch representative. The director recently distributed copies of the Deloitte & Touche report, which was originally made public in 2003, to all his staff. Further formal meetings are scheduled for Dublin, Malin Head and Valentia Island in March and April. A meeting was held recently for all Dublin-based Coast Guard maritime administration staff whose functions it is proposed to transfer. The potential restructuring has also been discussed by the relevant committees on which organisations with an interest in search and rescue services are represented.

Officials from the Department of Transport have written to the ESB stating that the Coast Guard would like to improve the resilience of electricity power supply to Malin Head and Valentia Island Coast Guard stations to the standard of that supplied to the station at Leeson Lane in Dublin. They cited their record of the number of times the uninterrupted power supply systems have automatically switched to battery back-up power on foot of supply threshold abnormalities in the incoming power supply. They pointed out that these events occur at Malin Head and Valentia Island ten times more frequently than at the Coast Guard’s uninterrupted power supply systems in the Dublin area. They asked the ESB to provide costed proposals to achieve a similar standard of power supply at Malin Head and Valentia Island stations to that experienced in Dublin.

Departmental officials have asked Eircom to produce specific proposals and cost comparisons for the enhancement of the communications services at Malin Head and Valentia Island. It is hoped that Eircom can provide the capacity to ensure flexible and full operational coverage of Ireland’s marine emergency management needs. Consideration is also being given to the possibility of locating the communications centre at an alternative west coast location, such as Limerick or Shannon. The cost, engineering and operational merits and limitations of such locations will be compared to those of the existing centres at Malin Head and Valentia Island before a decision is made. Senators will appreciate that the examination by Department of Transport officials of the best possible option for the Coast Guard and those who are at risk at sea will focus on how the marine rescue emergency service can best be delivered efficiently and effectively. In making the final decision, the Minister will consider a range of wider socioeconomic factors, as well as the case made by local representatives, local community groups and individuals. The Tánaiste announced on budget day that each Department is to undertake an efficiency review of expenditure. The specific requirement to consider possible inefficiencies will have a bearing on the final decision in this instance.

[1319]It is important not to lose sight of the driving force behind this process, which is marine safety in general. The Coast Guard needs to continue to improve its service to the public using available resources. I emphasise that these decisions will be taken against a background of increased focus on and support for the maritime safety sector. The Minister’s intention is that the Coast Guard and maritime administration will continue to be enhanced over the coming years. The changes to be made will improve emergency response services throughout the country and help to reduce loss of life at sea, particularly for coastal communities. A wide range of views has been expressed not only over the last couple of hours but also in representations the Minister has received from diverse sources. They will be taken into account before final decisions are made. One undeniable benefit from the discussion is a heightened awareness of marine safety. This will lead to a reinforced commitment to ensure the provision of a world-class service of which we can be immensely proud. The commitment by the Minister for Transport to develop a service that reflects Ireland’s key position as a maritime nation on the western approaches to Europe will require significant commitment, focus and change in the years ahead. I thank Senators for their contributions during this debate.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.

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