Residents on Inis Mór are calling on the Government and county council to intervene in an impasse over landing levies which will see the passenger ferry service from Ros a Mhíl to the island suspended for several months this winter.
Island Ferries Teo, which operates the service between Ross a Mhíl and Kilronan, said yesterday that it had been left with no option but to shelve its service between November and mid-March.
The company said in a statement that it would withdraw the daily service from November 2 until March 17.
“We take this course of action with great reluctance and sadness,” the statement read. “We have been operating quality ferry services to and from the island for over 33 years and are now forced to engage in such service suspension due to policy decisions beyond our control.”
It said the move follows the introduction of a bye-law in 2011 requiring the ferry company to pay levies per passenger for landing at the redeveloped Kilronan Harbour, replacing a per-vessel levy which had been in place previously.
The company said this change had resulted in it operating the service at a financial loss during the winter months, a situation which it said was not sustainable.
Cathy Ní Ghoill, manager of Comharchumann Forbartha Árann, said yesterday that the withdrawal of the service would have a significant impact on islanders. Ms Ní Ghoill was due to meet with Galway County Council officials in Galway last evening, ahead of an emergency meeting of the co-op on the island.
The group is also seeking an emergency meeting with the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht and is calling on the Department to find a solution to the impasse.
“We are asking the Department to intervene and get all the stakeholders together and figure this out,” she said yesterday. “We are the ones who are going to lose out on the service.”
Sen Trevor Ó Clochartaigh also called on the various stakeholders to sort the problem out. There have been numerous meetings and calls to address ongoing problems with the cost of the service in recent years. He said local Oireachtas members were seeking to meet acting Galway County Council chief executive Kevin Kelly to discuss the issue.
“We need to ensure a continuity of service but there needs to be longer term discussions, particularly with the islanders themselves, to ensure continuity of service with both the ferry and the air service,” Sen Ó Clochartaigh said. “Basically they’re falling from one crisis to another and it is totally unacceptable.”
The service to the smaller islands of Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin is covered by a public service obligation levy; this subsidises transport services which, though not necessarily commercially viable, are vital to those living in remote areas such as islands. However since the PSO levy for the islands was separated into two contracts some years ago, there is no company operating a PSO service on Inis Mór.
The ferry withdrawal is the latest in a series of crises to hit the islands. Last year the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht agreed to award the contract for air services to Executive Helicopters Limited, which sought to provide a service between the islands and Galway Airport. Islanders argued the move would effectively sever the air link with Connemara, and create problems for people who needed to travel to Ros a Mhíl when flights were cancelled in poor weather.
A new tender for the air service is due to be decided on in January.
A spokesperson for Galway County Council said the latest impasse was a matter for Island Ferries Teo and the Government Departments responsible for the service.
“The matter of ferries and ferry usage and licensing is a matter between the ferries and the departments of the Gaeltacht and Transport,” the spokesperson said. “The bye-laws are in place and will remain in place.”