Council to discuss ferry crisis as service shuts down until March

The Galway County Council is expected to discuss the ongoing impasse over ferry services to Inis Mór at its budget meeting this morning (Thursday ). Councillors are expected to be asked to reduce the passenger levy on the service from 80c to 40c per passenger, and to scrap a €5 passenger fee for permanent residents on the island.

The move follows the withdrawal of services between the island and Ros a Mhíl yesterday as a result of a lengthy dispute over the passenger levies. Island Ferries Teo, the company which operates the service, made what it said would be its last sailing of the winter at 6pm yesterday. The company said the service would be suspended until March 27.

While talks over the impasse continued yesterday there was no sign of a resolution at the time of going to press.

In a statement this week Island Ferries, which has been operating a ferry service to and from the island for the past 33 years and employs up to 50 staff at peak season, said it had been "left with no further option but to take such drastic action". The move follows a years-long series of meetings over the cost of passengers disembarking at Kilronan Harbour, which was redeveloped in 2011.

The local authority introduced the levies in a bye-law that year requiring the ferry company to pay levies per passenger for landing at Kilronan Harbour, replacing a per-vessel levy which had been in place previously. The company contended that 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.

Island Ferries announced in October that it would suspend services to the island from November 2, but postponed this to December to allow for talks with Galway County Council and Roinn na Gaeltachta over the levies.

The company put forward revised proposals on these fees, saying it was willing to accept the current per passenger charges on condition that the rate be reduced from €0.80 to €0.40 per passenger. It was also willing to pay such revised rates on a retrospective basis for the period from 2012 to 2016. It also asked that the €5 per passenger charge for permanent residents be scrapped.

The company said this week that it was "most surprising and disappointing" that the council did not discuss its proposals when it met to discuss the 2017 budget on Monday.

Cathy Ní Ghoill, manager of Comharchumann Forbartha Árann, said yesterday that the situation had reached "crisis point" for islanders, who had been left with no information as to how they would be able to get to and from the mainland over the winter months. "We are asking what emergency plan is in place, and there doesn't seem to be one," she said. "As far as we know there is no emergency plan and no ferry available. Thank God we have the plane."

However the nine-seater plane, which appears to be only transport now available to the islanders, cannot travel in poor weather. It also cannot fly after 3.30pm during the winter months due to light conditions, severely curtailing islanders' movements on and off the island.

A new tender for the air service is due to be decided on in January.

Sen Trevor Ó Clochartaigh has called on Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources Sean Kyne to ensure that the ferry service is not disrupted.

"Minster Seán Kyne has a responsibility for ensuring that there is a ferry service to the Aran Islands," Sen Ó Clochartaigh said. "He should have sorted out this debacle previously, but now it is imperative that he clearly outline what his Plan B is to ensure that the people of Inis Mór can get on and off the island by ferry from tomorrow onwards."

Minister Kyne, meanwhile, has said he wants to see a speedy resolution to the impasse and has asked the ferry company not to withdraw its service. "I'm asking Island Ferries to maintain the service and discussions, and that attempts at a resolution continue," he said yesterday.

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