Adjournment Debate. - Withdrawal of Ferry Services.

(Wexford): I thank the Chair for the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment and I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to reply. The decision by Irish Ferries to close the Rosslare to France shipping route from 3 November 1996 to 1 April 1997 — involving the loss of 400 staff on ship, 25-30 office workers and 20 people employed by the ship repair company — will have a devastating effect not only on the economy of Wexford but on the country.

This decision has been taken because of non-profit making winter sailings. It will mean that for six months of the year there will not be a passenger service from Ireland to the Continent and this will have a serious impact on our tourism industry not only in the south-east but across the country. It is reckoned that even in the off peak season up to 1,000 people per week travel here from France and further afield.

Irish Ferries is the largest carrier of livestock and at a time when the farming community is up in arms about BSE and the need for live exports, this decision will seriously affect cattle prices here. The impact of the decision on the tourism industry and the farming community will be a severe blow to the south-east economy. The job losses will have a devastating impact on Wexford, in particular, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. As I said, the proposed job losses include 400 staff on ship, 25 to 30 office workers, 20 workers employed in a garage that repairs the ships. Suppliers in the south-east, including suppliers of linen, clothing, food, duty free goods as well as the loss of business to bed and breakfast proprietors, hotels and restaurants and CIE workers who provide offshore services, will no longer be required. Total job losses in the south-east region will be in the region of 600.

The decision is a major blow to the people of Rosslare, the people in other parts of Wexford and successive Ministers who have invested substantial amounts in the development of Rosslare as a major Euro port. It is one of the finest ports in Europe and the decision by Irish Ferries will undermine operations in it.

Some of the reasons given for the proposed closure include the non-profit making sailings during the winter months. Brittany Ferries is subsidised to the hilt by the French Government and the Channel Tunnel and air fares are undercutting its prices. In an article in The Irish Times of 1 April 1993 Eamon Rothwell, managing director of ICG, predicted the decision that has been taken unless subsidies were forthcoming from the Government of the day, he said that foreign crews, who would not have to be paid as high a wage, would have to be employed on ships owned by Irish Ferries if the company were to survive.

I ask the Minister to seriously investigate how this decision can be rescinded, to ascertain the commitment of Irish Ferries to Rosslare because it is rumoured that there will be only one ship available for summer sailings, that the following year the company will review its operations and that in the following year it may withdraw its service altogether. The position is very serious. The decsion to withdraw the service has been taken without very much communication with the workers. I ask the Minister to give an assurance that he will investigate the possibility of the decision being rescinded in the interests of the workers, tourism and the livestock industry.

I thank Deputy Browne for raising this matter which is of considerable concern to all of us, in particular those who live in County Wexford and other parts of the south-east. I recently learnt with regret from Irish Ferries that the Company proposes to close down its routes between Rosslare and Le Havre-Cherbourg from November 1996 to Easter 1997. I have arranged to meet with the company tomorrow to review all aspects of its decision in this regard, which of course was a commercial one taken by a privately owned firm.

The company has already advised me that in the past the profits which it made during the summer months on the route were sufficient to compensate for losses sustained over the winter months. Developments which have taken place during recent years, however, have put added pressure on the company in relation to the route. The fares competition which has emerged on the English Channel due to the opening of the tunnel has diverted traffic through Britain and away from the direct continental route with adverse effects for the company. I am aware that Irish Ferries' main competitor on the continental route has been in receipt of substantial subsidies in recent years; also that another of its competitors employs non-EU low-cost labour.

I have been keenly aware of the importance of the shipping sector since assuming my present responsibility in the Department of the Marine. Shipping is an international industry and as Irish Ferries is only too well aware individual companies can be affected by developments which occur at international level. The problems which are being experienced by Irish Ferries and other Irish and EU companies were addressed by the EU Commission in the document Towards a New Maritime Strategy which was launched earlier this year by EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock. The document acknowledged that competitiveness of EU shipping was of primary importance. The Commission proposed the development of quality EU shipping, expansion of training for EU seafarers and the elimination of unsafe vessels. These are aspirations with which we can readily accord. Ireland hopes to arrange for substantive discussion on the document to take place during the Transport Council in December next.

On the domestic front, my colleague, the Minister for the Marine, Deputy Barrett, and I are pleased to have been in a position to introduce shipboard training subsidies for students at Cork Regional Technical College this year. This will ensure that they secure the necessary international placements which are an integral part of training. Finance Act measures earlier this year should also facilitate the modernisation of our merchant fleet. The Departments of the Marine and Finance have undertaken discussions with shipping interests with a view to ascertaining how the fleet and our marine economy and employment potential therein could be strengthened. In particular, as already announced, discussions are taking place on how the taxation and PRSI regime applicable to seafarers on Irish ships might be modified to bring it into line with the more favourable arrangements applicable elsewhere.

I believe it is important that Ireland as an island country should have effective, efficient and dependable sea links directly with the Continent as well as with Great Britain. Irish Ferries' service to and from France is an important part of our trading service. The loss of the Irish Ferries' winter service to France — three round trips per week — and the temporary lay-off of about 150 personnel is much to be regretted and this development has if anything hardened our resolve to make progress at EU and international level to ensure that Irish operators and seafarers can compete on an equitable and level playing field in the future. As I have already indicated, I will be meeting with the company at my request tomorrow and will be reviewing with them how the underlying factors which gave rise to their commercial decision in this case can be addressed.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 September 1996.