Vivienne Clarke and Julie Smyth
The Minister for Transport has said the Government will examine the tendering process for a search and rescue helicopter base in the southeast.
Minister Eamon Ryan told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that it was “a life and death issue”. “We have to get it right,” he added.
On Tuesday, the feared loss of Waterford’s Rescue 117 base prompted TDs and Senators to call for an urgent meeting with the Minister.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, Mr Ryan said local representatives who had expressed concern about the possibility of the service being reduced had a “valid point”.
There was going to be increased maritime activity in the area in the coming year, Mr Ryan said, so such a service was important.
The tendering process had to be done in such a way that if offered the best service and best value.
Mr Ryan said he was not saying that there should not be a base in any location. Consultants were going to be engaged to check the views of the industry. “We will listen to those views.”
The Minister said he was already engaging with some of the local representatives. “My door is always open,” he said, when it came to meeting the cross-party group of TDs and Senators who are demanding the retention of the Waterford-based search and rescue service.
His Green Party colleague, Waterford TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh told Déise Today on WLR there's a very strong case for the service to remain where it is:
"There's much increased shipping owing to Brexit, we know that there's an interconnector being built that will connect us into a wider engery system, we know there's going to be a huge amount of offshore (wind) all along the South East and East coast.
"So we're going to see massively increased activity in our marine environment so I believe if we make a change to that specification and we have four bases included within that, the case for maintaining a base in Waterford speaks for itself."
Oireachtas members from every southeast county met on Tuesday in a “constructive meeting” regarding the search and rescue service, where it was agreed that they would next seek a meeting with Minister Ryan and Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton.
Concern over the base’s future comes as a new tender for the Irish Coast Guard aviation service references “a minimum” of three helicopter bases – instead of the current four operating in Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford.
The new €800 million contract for the service, tendered by the Department of Transport, will see an operator appointed for the next 10 years, with the pre-qualification stage ending January 26th.
The tender documentation states that bidders can propose more than the minimum number of bases, with the final number of bases and their locations not specified. Tenderers must propose “a suitable configuration of bases,” the documentation states.
However, there are fears in the southeast that the Waterford base will be cut, following an attempt in 2010 to downgrade the 24-hour search and rescue service to a 12-hour, daylight-only service.
“There was a campaign at the time to reverse that decision and to resist that, which was successful. So there was always a fear in relation to the service,” said Waterford TD David Cullinane.