Wednesday, 20 February 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
9. Mrs. Barnes asked the Minister for the Marine the reason for the delay in (1) the appointment of a director to the Irish marine emergency service as promised on 2 August 1990 and (2) the provision of a helicopter at Shannon, County Clare, which was due to be in place from January 1991.
10. Mr. G. O'Sullivan asked the Minister for the Marine the present position regarding the privatisation of the search and rescue service off the Irish coast having regard to the outstanding record of the Air Corps since 1964; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
I am happy to inform the House that the Government have approved the acceptance of a tender for the provision of a search and rescue helicopter service at Shannon. Subject to agreement on the detail of the contract, regulatory clearance and the provision of necessary support facilities, I hope that the helicopter service can commence as soon as the necessary regulatory approvals are in place. I expect that to be in the course of summer 1991. While the invitation to tender requested plans for a January 1991 commencement, it was clear that none of the tenderers could meet that deadline if prudent requirements for airport facilities, training and familiarisation of crew are to be observed.
I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan that the Air Corps have an excellent record of service in helicopter operations. The Government intend to extend the Air Corps search and rescue service by  deploying Dauphin helicopters to Finner, Co. Donegal, and Cork. The mediumrange contract helicopter service will supplement, not supplant, the Air Corps service by providing a service beyond the range of the Dauphin helicopter. In my view, therefore, it is wrong to characterise the contract arrangement as privatisation. The Review Group on Air/Sea Rescue Services recommended as an interim measure that a contract helicopter be hired because of the delay inherent in purchase and delivery of an aircraft for Air Corps use.
Mrs. Barnes: Does the Minister share the disappointment of all Members of this House that the Civil Service Commission are only about to embark on advertising for the appointment of a director of the Irish Marine Emergency Services which was promised on 2 August 1990? In view of the positive response with which that announcement was greeted by people involved in the fishing industry particularly and in view of the fact that a very strong case has been made in regard to the urgent and continuous need for a helicopter base in the western fishing ports, and also in the light of recent tragedies where safety or lack of safety was pivotal to the said tragedies, is it not a matter of grave seriousness to all of us that we will still have not commenced the implementation of these two provisions?
Mr. Wilson: I share the Deputy's disappointment with regard to the delay. However, I want to assure the House that the Department have proceeded with all possible speed. We invited the tenders which we then had to examine. We found that we were somewhat optimistic with regard to time but the appointment for the contract helicopter will be in place when that contract has been placed.
Mr. G. O'Sullivan: In the light of the record of 537 lives saved in 1,493 rescue missions, would the Minister not agree that the Air Corps should be the unit to carry on search and rescue operations in this area? Would the Minister not agree that funding given to the Air Corps would be far more beneficial than putting the service out to private tender as the Minister has indicated he is doing?
Mr. Wilson: I would like to repeat what I said to the Deputy. The service is being supplemented rather than supplanted. The whole purpose of inviting tenders for the medium range helicopters was speed. My Department are quite satisfied that this is the only way and it is the way recommended by the Doherty Commission.
Mr. G. O'Sullivan: The saving of human life is the responsibility of the Government and giving the service to a private company to operate is shedding our responsibility. I suggest that the Minister is downgrading the Air Corps by having them as a supplementary service rather than the main service.
Mr. Wilson: I reject the suggestion that there is any question of downgrading. The full strength of the Air Corps' rescue service was assessed and appreciated and they will play a big role in search and rescue in the future.
Mr. G. O'Sullivan: I suggest to the Minister that if he had invested money in Sea King helicopters for the Air Corps we would have a far better service than we will have by handing the service over to private enterprise.
Mrs. Barnes: In regard to the Minister's information on the provision of Dauphin helicopters at Finner and in Cork, will they also come in at the earliest possible date as in the case of that to be provided at Shannon?
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