Claim of political interference in awarding €800m search-and-rescue contract, High Court told

Current provider CHC Ireland has brought legal challenge to tender competition which awarded new contract to Bristow Ireland

There is evidence of political interference in the awarding of the new €800m contract for Ireland’s search-and-rescue service, it has been claimed in the High Court.

In May, Bristow Ireland, a subsidiary of the US-based Bristow Group, was announced as the preferred bidder. The current provider, CHC Ireland, has brought a legal challenge claiming there were a number of flaws in the conduct of the tender competition.

CHC, which is one of the largest global operators of rotary wing aircraft, employs 141 in Ireland. It was awarded the current contract in 2012 for 10 years, and has exercised options to extend up to July 2025.

Its proceedings are against the Minister for Transport, with Bristow as a notice party.


During a hearing on Tuesday over whether the court should lift an automatic suspension on the awarding of the new contract pending the determination of the challenge, Catherine Donnelly SC, for CHC, argued the suspension should stay in place because of a number of striking or unusual aspects to the awarding of the contract.

These included that confidential information had been shared during the process and certain evaluators had previously worked for Bristow, she said.

Another was that there was evidence of “political interference in this competition”. Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell, in a Seanad contribution on May 31st last, said he was “not one bit sorry” that CHC had lost the contract, counsel said.

Sen Craughwell added that “this House and committee did much work that influenced the way this contract went”, counsel said.

This, counsel said, was “a very clear statement from a public representative saying there was political influence in the outcome”.

Ms Donnelly said it was not in the public interest that there was a race to sign this contract in circumstances where her side had raised serious doubts about the Bristow service where many of Bristow’s claims have not been properly addressed.

No slippage

Counsel also said the claim that there was an urgency to the contract being signed to ensure a two year transition period could start soon showed that, unlike other public procurement cases, there was no allowance for slippage when it came to awarding the new contract. The transition plan was a “high wire act”, she said.

Douglas Clarke SC, for the Minister, denied there was any political interference and said it was 15 years and six years since the evaluators had worked for Bristow, which was sufficient to ensure no conflict of interest.

Counsel earlier said the balance of justice was against the continuing of the suspension.

A number of public interest factors favoured this position, because of the urgent imperative to conclude the contract with Bristow due to the lifesaving nature of the service. It was also to ensure there is no gap between the expiration of the current contract and when the new contract commences on July 1st 2025, counsel said.

There was a further public interest in ensuring the enhanced Bristow service is in place in 2025 and the need to ensure certainty with regard to the employees of CHC, counsel said.

If CHC fails to prevent the contract from being concluded and should it win when its full challenge is heard, damages would be an adequate remedy for it, he said. However, damages would not be an adequate remedy for the Minister if one or more lives were lost as a result of the dispute.

Jonathan Newman SC, for Bristow, urged the court not to grant an injunction which would prevent the contract being awarded to his client.

CHC had made a “really extraordinary submission” claiming the public interest favoured it because, it claimed, Bristow will not be able to to deliver and that their (CHC’s) aircraft are self-evidently better, which Bristow disputes, he said.

CHC claims that there could be a short extension of their current contract to facilitate the legal proceedings was to imply that it was simply a matter of “pulling down the lever and off goes the transition plan out of the traps”, he said. What the court was being asked to do was take a leap in the dark, he said.

Mr Newman also said when counsel for CHC was asked to elaborate on her political interference claim, she said it was “not one of her most important points”. Yet she had “led off” on this allegation which made one take a very jaundiced view of the CHC claims, he said.

Mr Justice Michael Twomey reserved his decision.