There are some strange shenanigans happening on the Aran Islands these days and the locals are far from happy about it.
At a cost of forty jobs, and without consulting the islanders, the Department of the Gaeltacht withdrew the air-transport contract from a company that has successfully provided the service for more than four decades, leaving those who live on the islands baffled. They can’t understand how anyone — even the civil service — could have been stupid enough to try and solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
The current fixed-wing aircraft are perfect for the job. The Britten-Norman Islander can carry eight passengers and all their luggage on the seven-minute flight from the little airport at Indreabhán in Conamara to Iar Áirne on Inis Mór. It hops between the islands safely and quickly. It demands only the normal level of maintenance required for a fixed-wing aircraft, it can operate in difficult weather and people feel safe flying in it.
What’s more, because the Conamara airport is only ten minutes from the ferry port of Ros a’Mhíl, if the weather turns so foul that the planes can’t fly, local people can have the option of taking the boat.
It has worked for more than forty years, so why would Roinn na Gaeltacha suddenly drop the whole thing and instead award the contract to a helicopter company based in Galway city? After all, helicopters are fiendishly expensive to run, and people are afraid of them, with good reason.
The islanders aren’t the only ones baffled. Galway Council owns the airport that Executive Helicopters plan to use as a base, but the council was never consulted about the proposal and has no contract with the company. Therefore, it would appear that a vital element of the successful tender was not grounded in reality and that the Department exceeded its powers by awarding the contract.
Leaving that aside, nobody from the islands wants to fly from Galway city in a helicopter. They’re so angry about the whole thing that a delegation of several hundred are tomorrow travelling to meet the junior minister in charge of the project, Joe McHugh, who took the trouble to learn some Irish after being appointed junior minister for the Gaeltacht. I suspect his tutors won’t have taught him too many of the words that will be thrown at him during the meeting.
The Aran Islanders are a hardy bunch. You have to be when you live on a rock at the edge of the Atlantic and they won’t be swallowing any of the blandishments offered by a parliamentary secretary like Joe McHugh, but just like the rest of us, the residents of the Rock vary in temperament from mildly sceptical to downright suspicious.
Some people put the decision down to standard Departmental incompetence of the kind that provided Ros a’Mhíl with floating pontoons for the ferries but failed to do the same at the far side, leaving passengers arriving on Aran at the mercy of the tides.
Some think there’s skullduggery involved, though they don’t quite know what that skullduggery might entail.
The majority of people believe that this is the result of an ideological position, either in government or in the Department, with the Machiavellian narrative as follows:
We’ll force Aer Arann Islands out of business by denying them a licence. They’ll have to sack all their workers and sell their aircraft. That will destroy them forever. We’ll appoint a helicopter company that hasn’t a hope in hell of succeeding, since none of the islanders will use them and they won’t be able to provide a proper service. After a while, they’ll go bust as well, and that will be the end of government subsidising those pesky islands.
How is this achieved? Simple. By following the age-old public service tradition of first deciding what you want and then writing the specification. That’s how you rig a tender. You make it impossible to win for the people you wish to exclude.
UPDATE 13th October 2015
The Aer Arann service has been extended for 12 months but suspicions remain that this is simply a ploy to prepare the ground for a second, less hamfisted, attempt to close it down.