U-turn on move to cut helicopter rescue unit
Published 31/03/2010 | 05:00
THE Government has caved in to intense public and political pressure and backtracked on a decision that would have seen a cut in the country's 24-hour helicopter search-and-rescue service.
The U-turn came just over two weeks after the Department of Transport announced that, under new contracts, the Search and Rescue (SAR) service in Waterford was to be cut from 24-hour to 12-hour cover from 2013.
That move prompted widespread anger, particularly in the south-east as the Government confirmed that the other bases -- at Dublin, Shannon and Sligo -- would retain the existing 24-hour service.
However, following a meeting yesterday evening between Transport Minister Noel Dempsey and a number of Fianna Fail TDs, it emerged that the Government had backed down and that the full-time cover has been secured until 2023, at the earliest.
Mr Dempsey said he was "delighted" that negotiations with the preferred bidder, which started on Monday, have showed they could achieve a "major reduction in the cost difference" between a full 24-hour service at all bases and reduced cover at one of the bases.
Fine Gael's John Deasy said it was an "extraordinary U-turn" by the Government but that everybody involved in the campaign to restore the 24-hour cover deserved credit.
"Some people might say that, in the context of where we are as a nation, this was a very small issue, but the service that's provided is desperately important for coastal areas."
He described the original move to cut the service as "a dumb decision from day one".
Mr Dempsey came under fire in recent weeks over the issue and found himself subjected to heckling when he opened the Waterford-Knocktopher section of the N9 dual-carriageway.
Among those who slammed the mooted reduction in cover at Waterford were the Irish Fishermens' Organisation, the South-East Mountain Rescue Association and local politicians, including government backbenchers.
Fianna Fail TD Mattie McGrath admitted last night that he and his colleagues in the south-east "weren't happy" with the proposed cut from 24-hour to 12-hour helicopter cover in Waterford.
"I'm delighted it's been restored. It was daft to think we were putting another €30m into it and weren't getting the full service," he said.
Party colleague Brendan Kenneally said the Department of Transport had "backed down in the face of intense pressure".
"There were huge deficiencies in what was being proposed, and if the 12-hour service had been introduced it would have been a disaster for Waterford and the entire south coast area," he said.
Coast Guard helicopters provide a permanent maritime and coastal SAR service. They locate people in distress and provide immediate medical treatment where required, and evacuate casualties to a place of safety.