The Island Ferries company, which had been threatening to cease carrying passengers between Rossaveal and Kilronan in the Aran Islands, has agreed to extend its services until spring. The company had claimed it would stop its operation due to a protracted dispute over a levy of .80 cent which it is forced to collect from passengers on behalf of Galway County Council.
Officials from the Department of the Gaeltacht met with the company on Tuesday evening to discuss the future of the ferry service to Inis Mór. Island Ferries has now worked out a new agreement, which entails an extra payment by the department.
This agreement ends the immediate impasse but questions still remain over the .80 cent passenger levy. The money is collected due to bye-laws implemented by Galway County Council to help meet the annual cost associated with running Kilronan Harbour. Island Ferries Teo was granted leave in the High Court for a judicial review on the charges in 2012. Galway County Council successfuly defended the case and the company appealed the case the Supreme Court, which also found in favour of the council. Following the decision of the Supreme Court last year, Island Ferries announced it was withdrawing the service this month. It was indicated the service would resume during the summer months.
There is currently no Public Service Obligation (PSO ) in place for Inis Mór, meaning there is nothing to prevent any service provider from withdrawing or modifying its service at any time.
The issue was debated at length at Monday’s meeting of the Galway County Council. All local representatives were in agreement that a PSO for the carrying of passengers between the Aran Islands and the mainland must be put in place to secure the future of the service once and for all.
Islanders need security
Council CEO Kevin Kelly outlined that a new harbour at Kilronan was opened in 2011 following redevelopment work which cost in the region of €48 million. “It was the most significant project carried out on an off shore island in the history of the State.” He outlined that it cost around €200,000 per annum to maintain the facility and said it was essential the harbour did not return to its previous state, which he described as ‘inadequate and unsafe’. Mr Kelly said part of this cost was covered by charging the vvarious users of the harbour and levying a fee of .80 cent per passenger with a multi user charge of €5 for those using the service more than five times a year.
He defended the charges. “An enhanced facility has been provided for the Islanders and those who make a living out of the tourist industry. Effectively all users of the harbour must pay towards its upkeep. The charges are both modest and reasonable.”
Connemara councillor Séan Ó’Tuairisg said it was urgent that this matter be sorted. “We know there is no PSO contract in place, similar to the other islands, which means there is no guarantee of a service. It is time for the Minister to step up to the plate here. This issue has been ongoing for years. The least the islanders deserve is to know where they stand going forward. People may say the islands are a burden on the State, but it is actually the other way round. The islands are creating huge revenue, they are a major tourist attraction and of huge benefit to Galway and the Western region.”
Republican Sinn Fein representative Tomás Ó’Curraoin noted he had been against the levying of the charges from day one. “The Government should pay for the services - not the people. A fund should be put in place. The department has a duty to the people who were born and reared on the islands. It is like going down to the shop and paying .80 cent every time you open the door.”
Fine Gael’s Eileen Mannion said she did not think the issue was the actual cost but she believed the ferry provider did not want to collect anything. “I have huge sympathy for the islanders. They are battle weary, last summer they were fighting for their air service, now it is their ferry.”
Party colleague Jimmy McClearn said it was concerning that ‘some of our people are left to the whim of one person as to whether they have a service or not’.
Independent Tom Welby summed up the situation. “Every business has ups and downs, peaks and troughs. There is no appetite to change the bye-laws. We need to give our islanders some certainty, and the only way to do that is with a PSO contract.”
Councillor Eileen Mannion proposed that the council write to Minister Joe McHugh requesting him to begin the process of obtaining a PSO for travelling to the islands.