At the outset, let me clarify that no decision has yet been taken to change any aspect of the current delivery model of search and rescue, SAR, aviation services in Ireland's SAR domain. There is currently a project ongoing under the remit of the Department of Transport to consider, develop and bring to fruition a new marine search and rescue aviation contract for future service provision.
The current contract for the SAR helicopter service is between the Department of Transport and a civil helicopter operator, CHC Ireland DAC. The contract commenced on 1 July 2012 for a period of ten years, with an option to extend for a further three. The existing contract was extended earlier this year for one year to 2023 to facilitate the lengthy procurement process and ensure compliance with the public spending code.
A next generation SAR aviation steering group has been set up under the auspices of the Department of Transport and is led by the Irish Coast Guard to manage the procurement of the next SAR aviation service. Personnel from the Department of Defence and members of the Air Corps are key stakeholder members of the steering group progressing this contract and have played an active role in the group’s discussions since its inception a number of months ago.
The defence organisation is supportive of the Department of Transport’s programme to put in place the next generation SAR contract. A strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal document in line with the public spending code was agreed by the steering group and brought to the Government for information in July. The preliminary appraisal included an appraisal of various service delivery options, including one in which the State assumed full responsibility for the service, either through the Air Corps or through a dedicated Irish Coast Guard aviation branch. Both were ruled out for various reasons.
I agree with the strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal and I do not see the Air Corps taking full responsibility for SAR services in Ireland’s search and rescue domain. However, I would like to explore further the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the SAR aviation service, given its historical role in this area.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Having said that, I am well aware of the challenges the Air Corps experienced in the past in providing this service and any exploration of its providing some element of the service would need to take into account its existing roles and the current challenges in delivering those roles. I confirm that I have asked my officials to engage further with the Department of Transport, which has responsibility for the SAR contract, to explore the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the next generation SAR aviation service while at the same time ensuring the service meets domestic and international obligations for search and rescue and represents value for money for the State.
It is important that we get this right for everyone. There is considerable State funding at play here and the provision of a life-saving service is the ultimate aim. For taxpayers, the community and service providers, it is important that a full and realistic consideration is made of all the viable options available to the State. I am happy that this is the approach currently being taken.