Tuesday 25 October 2016

Department 'unlawfully shortened the season for boatmen to bring tourists and pilgrims to Skellig Michael,' court hears

Published 15/06/2015 | 17:57

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael, Ireland

THE Department of Transport has unlawfully shortened the season available for boatmen to bring tourists and pilgrims to an island off the coast of Kerry, it has been claimed in the High Court.

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Boatmen providing a service for visitors to Skellig Michael, which attracts pilgrims and sightseers to its 6th century monastic settlements, say the Department should not have placed a condition on their marine licences stating they cannot land there outside the period May 15 to September 30.

The boatmen say they have been landing there in April and October for decades.

The Department has claimed there are safety issues, relating to algae growth and rockfalls, and that the Office of Public Works (OPW), which looks after the island, does not have any personnel there outside May 15 to September 30.

One of 14 boatmen serving the island, Seanie Murphy,   Valentia Island, Co Kerry,  was Monday (June 15) granted permission by the High Court to bring a challenge to the Minister for Transport's decision to impose the time restriction on his licence.

He claims the Minister has no power to do so as the Merchant Shipping Act 1992, under which passenger boat permits are granted, only deals with the seaworthiness of a vessel, not landing rights.

It is also claimed the Minister failed to give any or adequate reasons for the decision.

John O'Donnell SC, for Mr Murphy, said his client worked and skippered boats since he was 17 and providing a Skellig service with is own boat since 1990.   He estimates he has carried around 15,000 passengers and landed them, when it was safe to do so, on the island.

In an affidavit, Mr Murphy said the traditional landing season has "since time immemorial" been from the beginning of April to the end of October. 

Since 2007, the OPW has sought to shorten the landing season by imposing the May 15-September 30 period.

This has never been accepted by the boatmen and landings have continued, and have been tolerated by the OPW.   There was, he said, "what might be described as an 'uneasy peace' between the boatmen and the OPW".

He brought legal proceedings after he received a letter last March from the Department of Transport along with a "varied" permit imposing the restricted landing times.   This was being done for "health and safety reasons" after the Department had been "instructed" by the OPW, the letter said.

Mr Murphy says while there were two fatal incidents on the island in 1996 and 2009, neither were related to landings and occurred some distance up the island.   One was a heart attack and the other was a slip and fall.

Mr Justice Seamus Noonan gave counsel for Mr Murphy leave to challenge the decision and also put a stay on the imposition of the new condition on the permit pending determination of the proceedings.  

He gave liberty to the Department to apply to discharge his order with 48 hours notice to Mr Murphy who made the application on an ex-parte (one side only represented) basis.

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