Coast Guard Stations

Very serious concerns exist in the north west at the suggestion the Malin Head Coast Guard station and marine rescue sub-centre could be closed. As the Minister of State may know, a very serious campaign was run a number of years ago when there was a threat to the stations at Malin Head and Valentia. The community across the north west including the fishing community and all of the public representatives in the region on a cross-Border basis argued the case for Malin Head and its 100 year history of service to be sustained.

Yet another report has been published, this one from Fisher Associates, recommending the closure of Malin Head. The public representatives in Donegal and the north west will ask for this recommendation to be rejected immediately. There is no logic to it in terms of savings. At present a major investment is under way at Malin Head which will be completed and open soon. Malin Head, Valentia and Dublin have the capacity to deliver all that is required. In real terms, the recommendations of the report would probably mean saving one job or two at most. A statement needs to be made urgently reassuring people in the north west our long campaign to save Malin Head does not need to be reopened. The Minister of State should be very clear that the people of the north west will fight like tigers to defend Malin Head. The fishing community and all of the representatives in the region will not accept any suggestion that the centre be closed. We have been neglected enough and there is no way we will accept any such suggestion without one hell of a fight.

There is much concern in Donegal, particularly in the Malin area, since the publication of the Fisher report last Friday. A battle was fought in recent years in which it was made clear to the Government that Malin Head Coast Guard station, with a reputation of saving lives and making safe the waters around the country, is crucial infrastructure and a crucial service. In 2008, when the campaign concluded it was made clear the three stations, namely, Malin Head, Valentia and Dublin, would continue. Unfortunately, the Fisher report published last Friday indicates we should move to a two centre model and preferred Valentia. If it is the intention of the Government to safeguard the future of Malin Head Coast Guard station, it is important that it builds on the investment being made in the station at present and gives strong assurance today that will bring certainty to the future of the station and allay the concerns people have following the publication of the report.

I thank both Deputies for their question. I will take this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar.

As part of the Croke Park agreement, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport engaged a specialist international maritime transport management consultancy, Fisher Associates, to undertake value for money reviews of services provided by the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office. These reports were published by the Department on Thursday last, 5 July 2012.

The Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office are internal divisions of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and are not separate statutory agencies. Taken together the reports call for a comprehensive integrated programme of work to enhance maritime safety and emergency response services. 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.

More support is needed for the volunteers in our coastal rescue units, particularly in the areas of improved training courses, oversight and supervision, day-to-day management, and risk and quality control. Significant backlogs in transposing legislative provisions into Irish law need to be addressed and additional inspection obligations also need to be addressed. Improved administrative and IT systems are needed to support delivery of services and the development of management and accountability systems across the maritime safety services. The report by Fisher Associates also concluded that such systems would contribute to alleviating staff shortages and recommended that realistic fees should be charged for the services provided by the MSO. There is a need for improved risk management and for periodic reviews and auditing of operational arrangements. The reports also call for improved communications both internally and with stakeholders and other partners for enhanced service delivery.

The Minister has informed the Government that the issues raised in the reports will be examined by the Department and that he proposes to present an action plan to Government in October, addressing the deficiencies identified. The issues that have been identified in the reports for action are serious and must be addressed, particularly those relating to oil pollution response capacity and volunteer training and management. However, the Minister has made it clear that he does not propose to accept or reject any of the recommendations proposed by the Fisher reports at this stage. Furthermore, no decisions have been taken at this time on these matters.

In preparing the action plan, the Department will assess each recommendation and will prioritise actions to address the deficiencies. That process will call for tough decisions to be made. However, it is important to recognise that resources available to the maritime services are very limited and must be deployed on a prioritised basis and as effectively and efficiently as possible to address the most urgent needs. Having robust and efficient maritime safety regulatory arrangements and emergency response services in place will be crucial also for the development of shipping, trade and employment, which have a key role to play in Ireland's economic recovery.

I want to take this opportunity to inform the House that new communications systems are currently being installed in the Malin Head centre, which has been closed since May, as part of a general upgrading of communications systems infrastructure nationally and in the three coast guard centres. It is expected that the upgrade work will be completed next month and the Malin centre will reopen at that time.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. In 2003 another serious consultancy, Deloitte & Touche, published a report which recommended that Malin Head and Valentia remain open and Dublin be closed. However, what has happened is that the Dublin centre has been sustained and upgraded, while we had to fight like tigers for Malin Head and Valentia. We will do the same again.

I welcome the recent substantial investment in Malin Head and welcome the fact the centre will reopen soon. However, I want an assurance from the Government today, or as soon as possible, that Malin Head will not be closed, as recommended here. That recommendation is causing great alarm across the north west. It is not just about having the telecommunications infrastructure, but about having local knowledge and an understanding of the culture, geography, locations and names that occur. Operators in Malin Head would understand these. The station in Malin Head is of huge importance for our region. We fought for it before and thought the issue had been put to bed forever.

We thought the investment in Malin Head was a clear signal that everything there would remain, but now we have this report. We need an assurance, as soon as possible, that the Government will not accept the recommendation to close Malin Head and will not deal another blow to the north west. We have never needed this station more and need a vote of confidence from the Government. We have had setbacks in the north west. For example, the Derry to Dublin air link was not supported by the Government and it has pulled back from the A5 project. Thankfully, however, the Northern Executive has honoured the A5 project and it will go ahead. We need no further setbacks from the Government. It has the opportunity now to do the right thing and to make it clear that Malin Head coast guard station will remain.

I welcome the fact that investment is ongoing in new communications equipment at Malin Head Coast Guard station. This is important to ensure the future of the station and was taken as a strong indication the station's future was secure. It is important this investment is happening because we can build on that and ensure the station is up to speed and is developed with modern technology that will ensure it can continue to carry out the job it has done so well over the years.

A part of the Minister of State's response will cause great concern for people in the north Donegal area and those involved in maritime issues across the north west. That concern relates to the statement that the process currently being considered "will call for tough decisions to be made". That indicates there may be a question over the continuation of Malin Head Coast guard station. Currently, the station works very well and performs an important function. We had a strong fight for its continuance four years ago and we believed then it was safe. A strong fight will take place again if necessary. I will work with all my colleagues and with Deputy Mac Lochlainn on this, as will other politicians in the area, to ensure the importance of this station is emphasised to the Minister of State.

I see no rationale in the report for anything other than continuing the operation of the Malin Head station. I ask the Minister of State again to give an assurance that there is no question mark over it and that the performance and job carried out by the station is valued and will continue to be valued and to provide the service it has provided so well for many years from Malin Head.

I thank the Deputies for their comments. Although they did not mention them, I take it that they accept the many other recommendations made in the report with regard to training and upgrading of volunteers, which are necessary. I take it they also accept the recommendations regarding risk reviews and the need for a programme of work in the area of pollution control and measures to be taken where there is potential for serious incidents.

Significant investment has been made in the Malin Head station and the OPW has signed contractual commitments to the value of €63,000 for renovation of the building. This will see the centre rewired, new flooring installed and a general clean-up. The Department has also spent €40,000 on communications architecture and associated works in recent times. All of this work will be completed in August.

I wish to make it clear that none of the recommendations, in particular the one raised by the Deputies, has been either accepted or rejected by the Department. Sometimes people think decisions are already made, but there is no predefined decision in this regard. Decisions will be made on the recommendations over the next number of months, with a view to completion by October.