The Irish Coast Guard has warned that the lives of both rescue staff and volunteers could be put at risk by a reorganisation of maritime safety which was initiated six months ago by Minister for Transport
Documents seen by The Irish Times cite vehement opposition by both the Irish Coast Guard and Marine Survey Office (MSO) to the changes due to be implemented over the next year, which include reducing Donegal's Malin Head Coast Guard station to a 12-hour watch rather than 24 hours, and cutting coast radio station staff by 18.5 per cent.
Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds warned that the proposals threatened "to tear up 30 years of progress" in marine safety, and said he believed Mr Varadkar had "not been sufficiently advised" of the full consequences of implementing them. The documents, some of which were released under the Freedom of Information Act, outline Irish Coast Guard and MSO opposition to the creation of what both say is a new layer of bureaucracy known as the Irish Maritime Administration (IMA).
The body, approved by the Cabinet last July, was created on foot of two value-for-money consultancy studies of the Irish Coast Guard and MSO. The Irish Coast Guard is primarily responsible for emergency response to incidents on water, while the MSO monitors safety standards on boats and in ports.
Mr Varadkar said at the time that the overhaul would have an "overriding emphasis on safety" and would "co-ordinate efforts more closely between the Irish Coast Guard and MSO", both of which are sub-divisions within his department.
He said he was committed to retaining all three Irish Coast Guard co-ordination/radio stations at Valentia, Co Kerry; Malin, Co Donegal; and Dublin; but said the new body would aim to integrate operations between the three. However, the details of the plan seen by this newspaper involve reducing Malin Head watch hours to 12, and renaming of Malin and Valentia as Marine Rescue Sub-Centre A and B under a single national marine co-ordination centre run from Dublin.
The plan involves reducing Coast Guard volunteer units from 49 to 42, and “strengthening” preventative measures to reduce the need for an emergency towing vessel for dealing with ship groundings and consequent pollution risk.
In his response, Mr Reynolds pointed out that the Irish Coast Guard was already operating at 50 per cent less than Britain’s recommended manning levels. He said it was “unwise and unsafe” to reduce numbers further and rely so heavily on overtime to cover for unfilled posts.
He warned against transfer of pollution control to administrators, stating that the plan represented a “dumbing down” of activity, and noting that it was “against best practice of unifying all coastal activity into a single operational entity”.
The plan threatened to break “all the links, the relationships, the expertise” in “what is already a weak system” due to under-resourcing, he said, and the IMA “brand name” would cause confusion with fishermen less likely to approach it fearing prosecution by what is perceived to be the regulator.
In his comment on the plan, MSO chief surveyor Brian Hogan said the new structure did not address a shortfall in inspection staff numbers, against a background of increasing regulatory requirements.
Five surveyors are due to retire in the next two years, he noted, and if vacancies were not addressed, it was "likely that in the coming years the fatality and accident rate will increase" due to a shortage of inspecting and auditing capacity. Mr Hogan also took issue with a reference to the MSO and Coast Guard not working together as a justification for the changes.
In his response to Mr Reynolds, Department of Transport assistant secretary Maurice Mullen said he "totally rejected" the suggestion that Mr Varadkar had not been fully informed of the implications.
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the Minister was aware of the Irish Coast Guard’s opposition.