Almost exactly four years ago, it looked like the coast guard stations at Valentia island in south Kerry and Malin Head in Donegal would be closed in favour of a dual hi-tech operation centred on Drogheda with a sub-station at Shannon.
The reason? A report rooted in managerial expediency and a jaundiced notion of efficiency that neglected to take into account the effectiveness of local knowledge and more than 200 years of nurture versus nature. You won’t find passion on any balance sheet, but, when it comes to saving lives, it makes all the difference.
Wiser — or at least more sober — heads prevailed after the Government bowed to a massive campaign driven by communities over 500km apart to reject plans to close the bases.
At the time, then Fine Gael TD for Kerry South, Tom Sheahan, now a senator, described the closure proposal as “economic folly” while his colleague, Joe McHugh, in Donegal North East, hailed the decision to retain both stations as a victory for commonsense. “Lives will be saved, as a result,” he said.
Few would disagree with this assessment but, this time round, he and his party colleague are on the other side of the political fence with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar assessing yet another report that recommends closure of both stations on the grounds of cost.
Fisher Associates, a maritime transport management consultancy, was tasked to undertake value-for-money reviews of services provided by the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office.
There were, by all accounts, a number of drafts of the coast guard report which shuttled back and forth between Fisher and Chris Reynolds, the man who heads the Coast Guard.
The final one, recommending closure of Malin and Valentia while centralising operations in Dublin city centre, surfaced in July and appears to have found favour with the minister and senior coast guard management.
We have been here before: PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1998, Deloitte and Touche in 2001, Fearon in 2008, and now Fisher in 2012 — enough reports to sink a battleship.
The Fisher study takes a slightly different tack from previous ones, emphasising that Ireland is poorly prepared for a major pollution incident off the coast.
Weaknesses in communication, along with deficiencies in training volunteers and in the operations of the State’s separate Marine Survey Office, have also been identified. So far, the Department of Transport is not saying how much these ‘value-for-money’ reviews have cost.
Speaking in the Dáil last July on behalf of the minister, Tipperary North Labour TD and junior transport minister Alan Kelly said: “Among the issues identified by Fisher Associates that need to be addressed on a priority basis is the need for Ireland’s capacity to prepare for and respond to major oil pollution incidents to be enhanced.”
Later, Mr Varadkar said he was initiating an action plan to deal with the “key deficiencies” which may require some “tough decisions”. That sounds like polspeak for scrapping one or both of the stations but the people of Malin and Valentia are not giving up without a fight.
Malin Head station has been in operation since 1805 and is the world’s oldest maritime radio rescue centre, while Valentia is the historic location for the original transatlantic cable station which linked Europe and the US.
Jim Patton, the senior manager of the British Coastguard, has described Valentia as the finest coast guard station he has seen in Britain or Ireland. It is the fourth largest in the British Isles and handles two thirds of all emergency callouts in the country, covering an area from Youghal, Co Cork, to Slyne Head in Co Galway.
Despite this, Mr Varadkar has indicated that the entire coast could be served from Dublin with a sub station in his own constituency of Blanchardstown in Dublin which makes his fretting about Health Minister James Reilly’s ‘stroke politics’ somewhat puzzling.
Trawler owner Seanie Murphy, who was coxwain of the RNLI lifeboat on Valentia for 28 years, warns the vast experience of the 16 staff would be lost if the station was closed.
“Their ability to communicate with the Spanish fleet that fishes off the west coast is well known,” he says. “They do this in highly-charged situations when a wrong command or a language difficulty would make the difference between life and death.”
Mr Murphy recalled a night when the lifeboat was launched to escort a Spanish vessel into Valentia harbour as a crewman needed medical attention.
“Conditions outside the harbour were not suitable for the evacuation but a local coast guard officer relayed the lifeboat’s directions to the skipper of the trawler in Spanish, asking him to follow the lifeboat into the harbour.”
However, at the harbour entrance, the trawler suddenly headed for the lighthouse and came close to grounding. “We then had to contact the coast guard and immediately he relayed in Spanish for the trawler to go astern. This they did and averted a disaster.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly led the political campaign to prevent the previous attempt to close the stations when the 2008 Fearon report recommended that both Malin and Valentia be scrapped. At the time, John Fearon, author of the report, and Chris Reynolds, head of the Irish Coast Guard, were brought before the Oireachtas Transport Committee to justify their recommendation for closure. Tomorrow, Mr Reynolds will be accompanied by the author of the Fisher report to explain to TDs and senators why everything should now be centralised in Dublin.
“The debate in the transport committee in 2008 was critical to ensuring the Valentia station stayed open and the same level of scrutiny and transparency is now required again,” says Mr Daly. In the wake of that campaign, Malin and Valentia had new equipment installed and access routes upgraded so there would appear to be even less justification this time round to close them.
Dara O’Malley-Daly, a station officer who has worked at Malin Head for nine years, said: “The station is known around the world for its rescues, not just off Ireland but out in the ocean. We have picked up distress signals which we have been able to pass on to colleagues in Britain, America, Canada and many more countries.”
Representatives of the Save Our Station (SOS) group on Valentia Island met Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan last month, but he could give no assurances on the retention of the station, lamented SOS spokesman Anthony O’Connell afterwards.
This is despite the fact that Valentia is by far the busiest of the three stations. It oversees an area which covers some of the most treacherous seas in the world and the roughest terrain in the country, Mr O’Connell explains.
Hundreds of thousands of euro worth of new radio and communications equipment is currently being installed on Valentia. The station’s main operations room is being upgraded and other rooms have been prepared to host the equipment for a more automated service. Kerry County Council has also spent €150,000 upgrading the road to the station.
“Is all this investment now to go to waste?” he asks.
The same can be said for Malin Head. Last August, staff at the Donegal station celebrated the completion of a €1m upgrade to their station. Fr John Joe Duffy, a curate on Arranmore Island, was among the guests at the station.
“The people here and their predecessors have saved countless lives over two centuries and any minister who would consider closing Malin Head will have the loss of lives on their conscience,” said Fr Duffy. “The British did this, closing stations, and they now accept that more lives are lost as a result.”
Timothy Lyne, who retired from the Coast Guard last year, worries that threats of closure, so far followed by reprieves, are very damaging and affect efforts to attract new recruits to Valentia. “How could you get anyone to come to Valentia from, say Dublin or Cork, and bring their family with them when there is this constant uncertainty?”
He adds: “The decision was made four years ago to keep the station. There is no good reason to close it.”
Each year, Valentia, with its 16 staff, handles about 150 major search and rescue events on this island. As well as an acknowledged bank of expertise, the station’s jobs are vital to the island’s economy.
Richard Foran, who runs the island’s ferry, describes the Dublin Coast Guard station as the service’s weakest link. “If there are too many stations, then it is the Dublin station that should close,” he says.
“Its area of operation is only about one third of the Irish Sea whereas in Valentia it stretches for 200 miles, and sometimes more. It shows the attitude of management when they are not looking at Dublin.”