Aran islanders face second day with no ferry service

Three-way talks due in bid to resolve impasse over levy as islanders stage protest

Aran islanders on Inis Mór face a second day without a passenger ferry. File photograph: Getty Images

Aran islanders on Inis Mór face a second day without a passenger ferry. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Aran islanders on Inis Mór face a second day without a passenger ferry on Friday as efforts continue to resolve a row over levies.

Three-way talks involving the Department of the Gaeltacht, interim Galway County chief executive Kevin Kelly and Island Ferries Teo are due to take place on Friday in a bid to break the impasse which is affecting some 900 offshore residents.

Several hundred islanders gathered at Cill Rónain pier on Inis Mór on Thursday morning to protest over the suspension of the ferry service until March 17th.

Aran-based Celtic priest and monk Dara Molloy said it was the first morning in 33 years that there was no scheduled service to the mainland – apart from cancellations due to weather.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil during Leaders’ Questions on Thursday the suspension of the sailings to and from the south Connemara port of Ros-a-Mhíl was “extremely disappointing”.

She said Minister of State for the Gaeltacht Sean Kyne has been in contact with Galway County Council, the Inis Mór co-op and the ferry company.

She said the company had told Mr Kyne the continuation of the service would depend on the outcome of a budgetary meeting of Galway County Council on Thursday.

She confirmed Mr Kyne had been in contact with the Department of Defence to secure assistance of the Naval Service, but urged Galway County Council to consider proposals put forward by Mr Kelly.

Councillors voted on Thursday evening to give Mr Kelly a mandate to enter into discussions with the company.

Not licensed

The Naval Service said it had received no request to assist. It is understood ships could be used in an emergency, but are not licensed as passenger vessels, and rigid inflatables would be impractical in winter conditions.

The cost of using the Defence Forces would be greater than the levy at issue in the dispute.

The row involves the ferry company’s objection to collecting a levy of 80 cents per passenger per trip, and €5 annually from islanders, on behalf of the council. The local authority says it is required to pay for the redeveloped harbour on Inis Mór.

The levy was introduced as a bylaw in 2011 in addition to regular harbour dues, and Island Ferries Teo lost two court actions challenging the principle.

Independent councillor Tom Welby has criticised Island Ferries for what he describes as its “despicable” action.

Island Ferries Teo is proposing a compromise where it would collect half of the levy sought by the council.

It has pointed out that the costs upon which the charge is based have never been audited or assessed independently.

Island Ferries spokesman and solicitor Jason O’Sullivan said the company did not take the action lightly, but the additional levy made a winter service unsustainable.

One winter contract

The island co-op representing Inis Mór had warned the Department of the Gaeltacht four years ago that all three islands should be tied into one winter contract.

Both Inis Meáin and Inis Óírr are not affected by the suspension, as both are covered by a State contract.

Uncertainty continues in relation to the air link to the three islands after December 31st, but Aer Arann has increased flights in the interim to assist islanders requiring urgent travel.

Mr Molloy paid tribute to the air company but pointed out that the air service was weather-sensitive, especially in foggy conditions this week.

“This is causing a lot of hardship, especially for people with medical appointments,” he said.