I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.
The Irish Coastguard has overall responsibility for the provision of maritime search and rescue services within the Irish search and rescue region. The Air Corps provides the search and rescue service, SAR, off the north-west coast while CHCI, a private operator, provides the service from Dublin, Shannon and Waterford.
In the period from late September 2003, there was an unusually high incidence of sick leave among the Air Corps rear-crew, that is, winchmen and winch operators. As service continuity within the north-west search and rescue operation could not be guaranteed with the existing rear crews the GOC of the Air Corps posted 13 of the 17 personnel to other duties. The four remaining crew were due to return to duty but three opted to transfer out of search and rescue. As a result, the north west search and rescue operation was limited in that it was unable to provide a winching service. While most other aspects of the search and rescue service continued to be provided, the lack of a winching capability severely eroded the level of service on offer and potentially compromised the safety of mariners.
In view of this, I asked my officials to work with the Air Corps to determine when it might be in a position to return to full search and rescue service. This examination took place against a background where CHCI, the provider of all other search and rescue services in the State, had submitted a proposal to the Irish Coastguard indicating that it could provide a service within a relatively short timeframe.
As I have said in the past, the safety of Air Corps personnel is of paramount importance. Training new winch crews and enabling them to acquire the requisite experience, including experience in theatre, would have meant that the Air Corps would have been unable to return to a 24 hour full search and rescue service until March 2005. In addition, because of the small scale of the Air Corps search and rescue operation, it would continually be at risk from the loss of small numbers of experienced personnel. In view of this, I advised my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of the situation and of my decision to withdraw the Air Corps search and rescue service in the north west.
We can never lose sight of the fact that search and rescue is an emergency life saving service, which seafarers must be able to rely on in all circumstances. In the absence of the Air Corps being able to provide the required level of service, and given the level of ongoing risk of the service not being available because of a lack of trained back-up Air Corps personnel, the reliability of the service offered by the Air Corps would always be in question. The Air Corps will continue to provide its current limited service while the coastguard makes alternative arrangements for the return of a full SAR service in the north-west. It is expected that these arrangements will be in place within weeks.
This was not an easy decision. The Air Corps has a long and distinguished tradition in providing search and rescue services and I know this decision was a real disappointment for it. I am also aware of the significant efforts of Air Corps management and staff to maintain an operational SAR service in the north-west, in particular the dedication and commitment of key personnel in the north-west search and rescue operation. However, the provision of this essential emergency service requires that a full team be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The Air Corps was not in a position to provide this.
The issue of service standards as regards all search and rescue and other maritime emergency operations is a matter for the Irish Coastguard. I understand that CHCI provides a full SAR service to the standard required and demanded by the Irish Coastguard. As such, I see no reason for coastal and island communities to be concerned about the standard of emergency service available from CHCI when it replaces the Air Corps in the north-west. The question of the cost of the new operation is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
With regard to Air Corps personnel still serving in the north-west, they continue to provide a limited SAR service pending the implementation of the new service. The arrangements for winding down the Air Corps service and the introduction of the new service are the subject of discussions between my Department and the Irish Coastguard. Air Corps personnel currently serving in the north-west, who are redeployed from Sligo to Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, will undertake such duties as may be assigned to them by GOC Air Corps. In this regard, it is the objective of the Air Corps to retain and develop the skills of all its personnel in the best interests of the Air Corps and the wider Defence Forces and duties are assigned accordingly.