Minister refused to discuss way of cutting €500m rescue contract
TRANSPORT Minister Noel Dempsey refused to meet a former head of the Air Corps to discuss a cheaper alternative to a €500m national maritime search and rescue contract with a private outfit.
Confidential correspondence seen by the Irish Independent reveals Brigadier General John O'Brien advised Mr Dempsey that the Air Corps could provide the same service for "significantly less" than the Government planned to pay a Canadian firm, CHC Helicopter.
Brig Gen O'Brien estimates tens of millions of euro could have been saved if all or part of the contract had gone to the Air Corps.
His intervention came in May, two months before the award of the contract to CHC would eventually be announced.
However, Mr Dempsey refused to discuss the proposal with Brig Gen O'Brien and the Air Corps was never asked to tender for the contract.
The revelation is the latest controversy to beset Mr Dempsey, coming just a day after it emerged that he used a €7,890-an-hour government jet and a ministerial car to attend a summer school in Donegal.
The search and rescue deal, which will see CHC paid €50m a year, is almost twice as expensive as a previous €27m-a-year search and rescue contract awarded to the same company.
The revelation comes after the British government decided last month to suspend and review its maritime search and rescue contract with a consortium involving CHC, worth Stg£7bn (€8.4bn), on the basis that it would cost too much.
Mr Dempsey has refused to initiate a similar review of CHC's Irish contract, despite opposition claims that it does not provide value for money.
The contract with CHC will see a new generation of Sikorsky S92 helicopters being leased for bases at Shannon, Sligo, Dublin and Waterford from 2012 to 2022 and available 24 hours a day for coastguard search and rescue missions.
At the end of the contract CHC will retain ownership of the helicopters.
In one letter to Mr Dempsey, Brig Gen O'Brien said the Air Corps' existing AW139 helicopters could, with a small amount of modification, be upgraded to a 24-hour capability.
He also suggested another cheaper option -- splitting the search and rescue service between the Air Corps and CHC.
However, Mr Dempsey wrote to the brigadier general, saying there was "little point in discussing the matter further" as the contract was in the process of being finalised.
Brig Gen O'Brien said he was "surprised" at the response of the minister, given the current state of the public finances.
The row has sparked calls by Fine Gael for the CHC contract to be reviewed.
"I would be calling on the minister to publish whatever advice he got on the value for money aspect of the contract," said Fine Gael TD transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd.
The Air Corps had been involved in search and rescue for 40 years before being stood down by former Defence Minister Michael Smith in 2004.
CHC was awarded a private contract for the service.