Coveney set to get remit for air-sea rescue


RESPONSIBILITY FOR the State air-sea search and rescue service is tipped to be transferred to Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney, as part of a promised merger of maritime functions in the new programme for government.

In a related development, Fine Gael junior minister Fergus O’Dowd said he still intended to press for a review of the State’s €500 million contract for search and rescue helicopters.

The transfer of the Irish Coast Guard from the Department of Transport to the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food has not yet been confirmed officially, but is expected to take place in a number of weeks by statutory instrument.

Minister of State for the NewEra energy and utility plan Fergus O’Dowd, who is a former Fine Gael transport spokesman, says he intends to raise the issue of the State’s €500 million contract for search and rescue helicopters with Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar this week.

Mr Varadkar retains responsibility for the Irish Coast Guard until an official transfer, and Mr O’Dowd said there appeared to be “significant questions to answer” over the €500 million deal signed by former transport minister Noel Dempsey last year.

The plan to provide a “new generation” of Sikorsky S-92 helicopters for the Irish Coast Guard from 2012 to 2022 hinged on a contract already agreed in Britain with Soteria to privatise its search and rescue service there.

However, British transport secretary Philip Hammond recently halted advanced plans for the £6 billion (€6.9 billion) privatisation, after Soteria came forward to inform his officials of “irregularities” in the conduct of its bid team.

Mr Hammond said the “irregularities” included access by one of the consortium members, CHC Helicopters, to commercially sensitive information relating to bids to replace over 40 helicopters flown by the British military and maritime and coastguard agency.

British military police have been investigating how the information came to be in the possession of the company.

CHC Ireland, which operates on behalf of the Irish Coast Guard, told The Irish Timesthat the British situation would have no impact on the new contract that it concluded for fleet replacement as part of Soteria.

The contract will involve replacing ageing Sikorsky S-61 helicopters flown by CHC for the Irish Coast Guard with one new and four second-hand Sikorsky S-92 helicopters.

The transfer of the four second-hand Sikorskys, based in Scotland, had been tied into the British privatisation contract timeline. The Department of Transport told The Irish Timesthis week it had “no reason to believe that the contract will not be fully transitioned by the end of 2013 as allowed for”.

A new Sikorsky S-92A due for delivery to Shannon in December of this year is being built in the US, it has said, and the first milestone payment had been paid as part of the contract terms.

Mr O’Dowd is particularly concerned about the decision not to opt for a fleet of new helicopters, given that the quoted price did not appear to be significantly higher, and he is also focusing on the decision to exclude the Air Corps.

The documentation shows that the Department of Defence ruled the Air Corps out as a contender in July 2008, as its AW139 helicopters were not equipped for search and rescue and it had “no aspirations” towards a national role in this area.