I am availing of your permission, Sir, to raise, briefly, the subject of the following question that I addressed to the Minister for Industry and Commerce on Wednesday last:—
"To ask the Minister for Industry and Commerce whether he is aware that the Bantry Bay steamship service, from Bantry to Berehaven, is about to be suspended, following the initiation of a road transport service by Córas Iompair Éireann; that this change will have the effect of cutting off Bere Island from securing supplies directly from Bantry and other trading centres, with consequent hardship to the residents of the island; and whether he will arrange for the retention of the steamship service to Berehaven, calling at Bere Island."
The Minister's reply is in the following terms:—
"I am aware that the Bantry Bay Steamship Company have suspended their weekly sailings and that Córas Iompair Eireann, in response to a demand for direct road transport, are providing a daily lorry service between Bantry and Castletownbere.
"The traffic formerly consigned to Bere Island by the steamer service amounted to about 25 tons per month, and I understand that there are small boats available which are capable of dealing with this traffic. In the circumstances, I see no reason to intervene in the matter."
The Minister has had a fairly hard day and I will be as brief as I possibly can. I propose, therefore, to confine the presentation of this case to three main aspects. May I give the House some information about the history of the Bantry Bay Steamship Company that is concerned? The company was originally founded in November, 1883, and since then they have provided a service to this isolated part of the constituency of West Cork, consisting of transport of passengers, goods, live stock, etc. They provided a steamer for that service weekly. I want to give the House some particulars of the traffic carried. Bere Island has figured in this matter because I hope to convince the Minister that the peculiar position that Bere Island will now find itself in is a serious matter for the inhabitants and one that should have his attention as Minister supervising the question of transport changes and similar matters. In the year 1936 there were 500 tons of traffic carried to Bere Island, in 1937, 488 tons; in 1938 485 tons; in 1946, 365 tons. As commodities were rationed and consequently smaller parcels of the various commodities only could be sent, the reduction in the traffic is quite understandable. In the same periods the traffic to Castletownbere was represented by the following figures: In 1936, 3,274 tons; in 1937, 3,200 tons; in 1938, 3,436 tons; in 1946, 3,035 tons. I am also in possession of certain figures with regard to transport of passengers which I do not consider entirely vital to the presentation of this case and I shall not therefore trouble the House by giving the figures.
Bere Island is in an extremely unfortunate position as a result of this change. May I quote from a letter which I received from one of the traders there:—
"I wish to let you know that after 43 years of hard work to build up a business I find that there will be no alternative for me in a short time but to close it down. This is due to the initiation of a road transport service by Córas Iompair Éireann".
He goes on to say:—
"The manager of Córas Iompair Éireann wrote to me to have arrangements made with a trader in Castletownbere to store my goods which would be dumped there by their lorries. I could not do that easily. There are no means now of getting goods into this island and I would also have to pay the trader for storing the goods in Castletownbere".
The suggestion of the Minister that various small boats owned by local people would be capable of handling this traffic seems quite unsatisfactory to the people of the island and to represent a position that cannot be at all satisfactory to the people concerned. When this boat that plied between Bantry and Castletownbere was laid up each year for the annual overhaul required by Board of Trade regulations, the goods coming to Castletownbere could be conveyed to Bere Island by means of military tender.
The military tender, which was the main means of communication between the island and Castletownbere, has now gone, because Bere Island, one of the ports which figured so largely in our discussions in recent years, including our election speeches, has been completely abandoned. The entire military personnel in Bere Island has been removed, and I understand that the only military remaining there is a maintenance party consisting of four men. The military tender, therefore, is not available, and there is no means by which goods can be conveyed to the island, except in whatever way it can be done by small row-boats which may be available to residents and some of the merchants living on the island. This man says that it seems to him that a position is rapidly developing in which the island will be completely isolated, and he does not see much point in being compelled to pay taxes in a quarter of the country in which no services are available to the people.
The Minister will appreciate the fact that in regard to certain goods, such as paraffin, sugar and commodities of that kind which are on demand as soon as they are available, and, in fact, some days before they are available, it is necessary that there should be some service by which they could be made available speedily. I suggest that the position of these people in Bere Island —some 300 or 400 people live on the island—will be extremely difficult. For one thing, they will have to face higher costs for the goods they receive, and, for another, the service will be irregular, unsatisfactory, inadequate and, I am afraid, infrequent, because it seems that, at certain parts of the year, it would not be possible for small row-boats to convey goods to the island because the passage is not quite easy. I do not think the arrangement would be at all satisfactory.
So much for the position of the people there. Let me come now to the position of the employees of this company —not a great number, but, still, all of them bread-winners and the supports of households—who are concerned with this change. There was a crew of seven or eight on the boat and a number of other people were directly employed by the Bantry Bay Steamship Company. I understand that every single one is now out of employment. Furthermore, I am informed that it is very questionable whether, under any existing legislation, they have any pension rights, or any rights to get alternative employment, and though the number of people is not very large, a great deal of hardship is involved for the people concerned, a number of whom have spent the best years of their lives in the service of this company. May I suggest that that aspect of the case, at least, ought to have the earnest and special consideration of the Minister who does not wish, I am sure, to add to the number of people who are deprived of employment and who may be compelled to exist by some other means in the absence of that employment?
I suggest further to the Minister that a transport service by road to Castletownbere is a very uncertain undertaking, from the point of view of giving service to the people. The distance from Bantry to Castletownbere is 33 miles and the road is rather perilous and difficult. That is well known to most road-users and I think it a great pity that some alternative cannot be found to putting this old-established company, which, in a modest way, gave a certain amount of employment and which, in a general way, gave good service to the people concerned, completely out of business. May I suggest that he may be able to devise some means by which a restricted road service could be permitted, together with this service for the period for which it is available to the people, that is, one run per week and that, in addition, he should examine the question of whether the alternative service provided is capable of carrying the same amount of traffic and the same bulk of traffic as was carried by the other service? It seems to be rather difficult to understand that live stock can be carried as easily by a road service as they were carried by the service which now goes out of commission, the steamship service. I have been informed, though I cannot personally vouch for it, that on the occasion of the last fair in Castletown, a number of cattle could not be removed by lorries and had to be driven by easy stages along the road between Castletownbere and Bantry.
The Minister will have the advantage of certain arguments in this matter— that the people will be getting a daily service and a more up to date service. I feel that, while that may look all right on the surface, it is not at all clear that the service will be either up to date or satisfactory, having regard to the peculiar geographical position of the area concerned and to the adjacent island of Bere which will be in a position of special difficulty. I urge the Minister, not in any spirit of controversy or any spirit of Party advantage, to examine the matter further to see whether there is any possibility of meeting what I believe to be a fairly strong local view that it it a most unfortunate act which deprives them of this service.