Sunday, September 13, 2015

Process before people! Burocratic bumblings west of the Corrib!

Stop Press: U-Turn
The Dept's Announcement
26th September 2015: Raidío na Gealtachta news reader Maríon Ní Shúilleabháin was first out of the stocks at 21.00 last evening  with a tweeted copy of a embargoed release from the Department which announced the cancellation of the contract for a helicopter service from Carnmore to the Aran Islands. This is in fact a u-turn by the government. 
Here is how it is reported by the Irish Times: Tender procedure for Aran Island air service cancelled! The Irish Independent has: Minister cancels decision to award Aran Islands air service to helicopter firm! And the Aran Islands helicopter contract cancelled after backlash from locals! 
And this is how (the Irish news service)  reported it: Deireadh curtha leis an bpróiseas tairisceana maidir le seirbhís aeir d’Oileáin Árann! 

Sadly there has been no good news for the people of Cleggan as AnPost have been adamant in their decision to close the post office service there at a meeting with the people yesterday!

There is an apocraphal story about the discontinuation of the last telephone kiosk in Cill Rónáin, the capital of the Aran Islands. The telephone company removed the telephone and on the door of the kiosk afixxed the following notice:

"Service from this kiosk has been discontinued. However if a telephone is required the nearest in service kiosk is in Roundstone!"

Now the frequency of any, if any, connections to Roundstone - which is on the mainland - is to say the least infrequent. The message that it underlines however is the futility of distance management. The nearest kiosk may very well have been in Roundstone but the possibility of getting there to use it in any reasonable time was non-existent. Local knowledge could have instructed this decision.

There have been  a number of cases in Conamara and Árainn recently which also highlight this lack of local knowledge or indeed respect for local consultation.

The school bus
There are close to 30 young people in our district who attend the  "local" secondary school. This school is not in the parish but about a dozen miles away. Suddenly and without prior notice parents were advised that the bus service which has served the school from this district was been discontinued. Needless to say this created a major problem, not least for the school. The fact that so many pupils would no longer be able easily to attend classes could have implications on how many teachers they could be justified to the Department of Education. Happily after a very strong and robust protest by both parents and school authorities the decision was rescinded. For the moment?

Department superceded!
The Island of Inis Meáin is the smallest of the three islands which guard Galway Bay. It has a small population and a small school. The Department of Education has applied their rules strictly with regard to teacher ratios without reference to the needs of particular areas. This has meant that the primary school on the island has only one teacher teaching all classes from infants up to sixth class. If as has happened that teacher is ill there is no teacher for the school and there is difficulty in getting a temporary teacher not least because of the location of the school. The Government has refused to relent from this hard-line approach and the island suffers as a result. To the eternal shame of the Government a solution was presented, albeit a temporary one. An international company, Zurich Insurance, has agreed to finance a second teacher for this school. Inability to understand local conditions and deliberate deafness to local advice again is the hallmark of the states response. "The case for the reinstatement of an additional teacher at the primary school on Inis Meáin is a strong one," they said in a statement. Obviously not strong enough for the Department to bend its rules.

The local post office.
"An Post regrets to advise customers that this Postal Agency will close on Friday 28th August 2015."  This was the news that greeted residents of NW Connemara village Cleggan a short ten days before it happened. This village is the mainland connection for Inisbofin. It is not a Gaeltacht area.  Their Post Office, which has served the people of Cleggan for at least four decades, was finally to close.  It had been downgraded some years previously to the status of a Sub-Post Office, with no facility to offer full postal services.  However, it had continued to provide Social Benefit payments to pensioners, those on disability payments, and the unemployed.  Cleggan is a relatively isolated village, so the loss of these services locally represents a major blow to the village. The residents of Cleggan and its environs find it impossible to understand the decision by An Post, a decision "taken by some faceless person in An Post".  Local knowledge? Consultation?

Sorry we can't take anyfurther bookings!
But perhaps the most extraordinary example of this kind of senselessness was in the announcement of the termination of the 45 year fixed wing plane service from the Conamara Regional Airport to the Aran Islands and replacing it with a helicopter from the disused Galway Airport some 50+ kilometers away..

Joe McHugh TD - "Pleased!"
"Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs, Joe McHugh T.D., has announced today (26 August 2015) that the preferred tenderer for the air service contract to the Aran Islands is Executive Helicopters Limited. It is intended that the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as the contracting authority, will conclude a contract with the preferred bidder after September 9 following the standstill period. The Office of Government Procurement was responsible for organising the public procurement process regarding tenders for the air service. Under the new contract, daily return flights by helicopter will be provided between the islands and Galway Airport for the period from 1 October 2015 to 30 September 2019." The Minister obviously had not the slightest clue as to the effect of this announcement as he is quoted as saying. "I'm pleased to be able to make this announcement today. The agreement between my Department and Executive Helicopters Limited ensures that the air service to the Aran Islands will continue over the next four years."

For almost a half century the business community on the islands as well as other sectors (health, education, and tourism and the adminstration of the justice system) have availed of the service of what is now Aer Arann Islands, a service which has provided an enviably efficient service over the years. More recently the predecessor of the current Minister of State had indicated that there might be a discontinuation of the service for economic reason. The islanders made strong representations for the maintenance of the service showing just how the live of the islanders was improved by its existence. Indeed many islanders can have excellent jobs on the mainland and live their lives in their homes on the islands.

The local secondary schools have agreements with schools a short distance from the Conamara airport which greatly enhance the experience of schools on both sites of the water. Island businesses regard the air service as a liveline and use it constantly. Even if the weather is bad and does not allow for the plane service, the airport is close enough to Ros a'Mhíl to allow easy transportation between venues. Some business on the Island will close down if the service welcomed by the Minister is adopted. The airport will close down and there will be a loss of about 40 jobs directly engaged in the Aer Arann Islands service.

Choice or imposition?
In addition there is a fear among many people of traveling in helicopters. They are certainly more susceptible to adverse weather conditions than planes. There is doubt among air professionals as to their flexibility in "island hopping". Indeed there are no examples in all of Europe of a continual air service to islands using other than fixed wing aircraft. Also replacing a 7 minute fixed wing journey from a convenient airport with a 15 to 20 minute journey from the other side of Galway city needs to be justified. The fact that the availability of this airport is in question is also adding to the confusion.

The Office of Government Procurement was responsible for this debacle - some faceless person in Dublin? Even the local TD from the main Government party acknowledges that this particular process is a mess. Indeed aviation experts including a former member of the Air Corps, who, after discussing many of the points made above and more got straight to the nitty gritty: "...a single question remains – was there anyone with aviation experience involved in the procurement process in this particular instance? " To date this question has not been answered.

A meeting of the Islands' delegation with the Minister last Thursday produced no solace for the Islanders. A spokesman for the island delegation said after the meeting that he was even more disappointed than the previous meeting. All the minister would say was that the process had to run its course.

A subsequent statement from the Minister's office explained his position:
"In accordance with legal advice received, it has now been decided to extend the voluntary standstill period to 16 November 2015 with a view to obtaining clarification on the availability of Galway Airport for the duration of the 4 year contract from 1 October 2015 as set out in the Request for Tenders. The Department will be writing to the owners of Galway Airport in that regard.

In order to ensure that an air service continues to be provided to/from the Aran Islands, the Department will be engaging with the existing service provider (Galway Aviation Services Ltd trading as Aer Arann) with a view to agreeing the terms of an extension to the existing contract from 1 October 2015 to 1 February 2016."

Thus it appears that the Minister has extended by three months the contract of Aer Arann Islands. It subsequently appeared that they (Aer Arann Islands) learned about it only from radio reports! Indeed it appears that they still are unofficially aware of the position and are refusing to accept bookings after 30th September (Report in Sunday Independent 13 Sep 2015).

See also this article in Flying in Ireland 11 Sep 2015 -  Climb down on Aran Islands Air Service – For Now.

Meanwhile protective notice for those whose jobs are directly or indirectly have been issued.
Is it little wonder that the picture shown in this account of the most recent discussion with the Minister (the second in about a week) looks like nothing so much as a post funeral gathering. (Pic
A recent piece from a resident of the smallest of these three islands gives their perspective and indeed expectation. "I learned about the evacuation of the Blasket Islands in 1953 and how the government of the day stood by and allowed these islanders, a people rich in our own culture and language was allowed to be confined to the annals of history. 

If we continue to go in the direction that we are going, if we accept this and not stand up for what is right I believe that my own children will one day be interviewed by scholars eager to learn about how life on the Aran Islands was when they used to be populated."

Another islander has written this article which appeared in The Examiner: Aer Arann is more than an airline to the Aran Islands. It’s a lifeline. (15/9/2015). "Aer Arann’s current PSO from the State is €1.2m. The revised PSO, won by Executive Helicopters, was for €800,000.

This isn’t much more than annual social welfare payments that will need to be paid to those in the direct employment of Aer Arann as of next month, most of whom have skills that are not transferable.

Factor in the additional dole drawn when jobs are lost due to a downturn in tourism and craft trades, and that saving from cutting the PSO becomes dwarfed by hand-outs. Inis Maan Knitting Factory feel they will probably have to relocate. They employ 10% of the entire island’s population

Jobs that would only take an hour or so to do — such as fixing the Sky box or wi-fi — will now cost islanders a full day’s rate, as the helicopter and ferry service will be reduced to two crossings a piece. Islanders will also have to wait for service providers to have a full day that they can commit to doing the simplest of jobs."

There are those who say that this contract is part of an interim scheme to discontinue the air service completely by making it unworkable. In a few years time a justifiable decision would be made that since the service is not been used that much it should be shut down completely. But not even the state bureaucracy could be that devious. Could it?


It was a Fine Gael led Government which abolished the requirement for Irish in the state service. It was a Fine Gael led government which de-democratised the Gaeltacht Authority. It was a Fine Gael led government which watered down the law which stated that all bills and acts should be issued in both languages simultaeneously. It was a Fine Gael government that proposed the subsumation of the Office of Coimisinéir Teanga into the Office of Ombudsman. It was a Fine Gael led Government which allowed a gardiner in its employ be threatened if he did not desist in his advocacy for a strong supportive Government policy on the language. It is a Fine Gael led Government which is presiding over the steadily declining support of rural communities be they English or Irish speaking. Will it be a Fine Gael led government which puts the final nail into another of the unique treasures of our country - our island communities?