Gaeltacht Minister Joe McHugh insisted yesterday that no final decision had been made and no contract signed for the controversial air service to the Aran Islands.
Speaking after he had met a delegation from the three Aran Islands, Mr McHugh said that he wanted to stress that the tendering process was still ongoing and he was precluded on legal advice from saying anything that could prejudice it.
The minister admitted that his Department had received correspondence from one of the tendering companies threatening a High Court injunction in the continuing row over the air service contract.
Over 600 Aran islanders travelled by boat and plane to the Galway mainland yesterday in a show of strength to save their air service.
The islanders, from Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr brought placards and messages of opposition to a plan to replace the fixed-wing air link provided by Aer Aran Islands with a new helicopter service.
Many of the protestors were families who took their children out of school for the day in order to drive home the message to Minister McHugh.
Mr McHugh announced last week that the preferred tender for the new air service to the Aran Islands for the next four years was from Executive Helicopters of Woodford, Co Galway.
The news has been greeted with dismay by the islanders as they claim that helicopters are less safe and the new service would, according to the helicopter company, be based at Galway Airport in Carnmore on the eastern outskirts of Galway city.
Aer Aran Islands, which has provided the air service since the 1970s, has always flown from Connemara Airport in Inverin, just a ten minute drive from the Aran ferry port of Rossaveal, and which traditionally provided the islanders with a transport option to meet their requirements.
The islanders insist that basing a helicopter service over 50km away and through Galway city’s notoriously heavy traffic is unworkable.
And yesterday it emerged that neither Galway County Council nor Galway City Council, who jointly own the airport facility, had been consulted about it being used as a base for an island helicopter service.
Inis Meáín Knitting Company managing director Tarlach de Blacam said that the decision represented "death by a thousand cuts" for the economy of the three Aran islands.
Mr de Blacam, who is Inis Meáín's representative on an action group formed to retain the air service, said that he did not know how he could continue to run his knitwear business under the new arrangement.
“There is a major question about the preferred tender for the air service as the helicopter company says it will operate from Galway Airport in Carnmore but that airport is unavailable.
“There is opposition to a helicopter service to offshore islands all over Europe and this has to do with the safety issue. People on the islands would use anything to get to the mainland when necessary, but risking life and limb is another matter—nobody is willing to do that”, he said.
The biggest employer on the islands, the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, which has 36 teachers travelling to the three post primary schools on the islands, is also opposed to the new air transport arrangements.
The owner of Aer Arann Islands, Padraic O Ceidigh has said he is “devastated” at the loss of the contract and has warned that up to 40 jobs at the airline will now be lost.
Among those lending their support yesterday to the campaign to retain the fixed-wing service was Mags Wallace whose husband Tim is an aircraft engineer with Aer Arann Islands.
Mags took her two sons, Cathal, aged 6, and Sean, aged 8, out of school yesterday to join the islanders’ protest outside the offices of Roinn na Gaeltachta in Furbo.
“This has very serious implications for my family. My husband is the main breadwinner as I only work part-time. Emigration is a real possibility”, said Mags.
After meeting the islanders’ delegation in Furbo, Minister McHugh said: “At the moment it’s very important to point out that this process is still live, it’s still ongoing. There’s no contract signed and it’s very important to point out that I’ve been given very strict advice from the Chief State Solicitor’s office and also the AG’s office that because the process is live, is ongoing, that anything that I may say or do say could prejudice the outcome”.
He added: “The preferred tenderer was Executive Helicopters—that’s the preferred tenderer. So the space we find ourselves in at the moment is there are opportunities for unsuccessful tenderers to make an appeal”.
Spokesman for the islanders’ delegation, Tarlach de Blacam said that “no progress” had been made in their appeal to the minister to reinstate a fixed-wing air service rather than one provided by a helicopter company.
But the fight by the islanders would go on, he insisted.