Valentia Ferry group slate Dept 'excuses'

Company says department is making up reasons not to fund vital ferry

Simon Brouder

The Valentia Ferry company have rejected Tourism Minister Brendan Griffin's claim that EU state aid rules are preventing the Government from releasing funds to keep the vital service operating.

The service - which transports up to 250,000 visitors a year to and from the island - faces closure by 2020 if funding can't be sourced to replace the aging 56-year-old ferry that is currently in use.

Valentia Island Ferries have sourced €1 million but needs a further €1.8 million to buy a replacement vessel that would keep the ferry service in operation for another 30 years.

Citing state aid rules, the Government and Department of Transport have, thus far, refused to provide funds to help the company bridge the financial gap.

In last week's The Kerryman Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Junior Minister at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport Brendan Griffin said that EU rules on state aid prevented the state from funding a new ferry.

Minister Griffin said: "In relation to Valentia Ferry the key challenge for us is we've had numerous meetings with the committee. State aid is the big challenge for us there. We can't find an avenue to legally provide funding to replace the ferry. If you cross the €200k threshold you're into State aid territory; that's the stumbling block and we are trying to find some way of getting around it."

The Taoiseach - citing the difference between infrastructure spending and operational subsidies - said funding the ferry could be "a problem" as the state "could be providing state aid to what is essentially a private business."

Valentia Island Ferries Co- Director and Manager Richard Foran said he strongly disagrees with the Minister and Taoiseach's take on the situation.

Mr Foran told The Kerryman that under Fáilte Ireland's own funding guidelines 'local infrastructure' projects are exempt from EU rules on state aid for tourism projects.

While ports can be funded as 'local infrastructure' tourism projects, boats cannot. That is unless they are deemed as being 'integral' to the project.

As such, it would appear that a mechanism does exist to fund the new ferry without contravening EU regulations.

Mr Foran said he feels the Government has no interest in keeping the ferry operational.

"If there was a real will (to keep it running) they'd find a way," he said.

"It's an urban-rural thing. The civil servants in Dublin just don't understand what this means to the area," said Mr Foran.

"We get the feeling that the Minister (Transport Minister Shane Ross) just isn't strong enough to deal with the civil servants."

Mr Foran also pointed to the provision of state funds to Stobart air - a private company - to subsidise the otherwise financially unviable Kerry Dublin flight route.

The example of the similar Stangford Lough ferry in Down, which receives £1.5 million a year in subsidies from the UK Government, was also given.

"We're not looking for subsidies, we're looking for a one-off grant. The Strangford ferry gets £1.5 million a year. We only need a single grant of €1.8 million, which could keep the ferry going for the next 30 or 40 years," Mr Foran said.

"Over thirty years €1.8 million is nothing," he added.

If subsidies were to be provided, both Mr Varadkar and Minister Griffin said that the operation of the ferry service would also have to be put out to tender.

Valentia Island Ferries say they would have "absolutely no problem with that".

"We don't care who runs it once it's running. All we want is for the ferry to be maintained," said Mr Foran.

He added that if the Ferry service ends it will cut out a key part of the 'Skellig Ring' and leave Valentia Island isolated at the end of a 'cul-de-sac'.

Mr Foran said research has shown that areas located along loops off main routes typically receive far more visitors than areas which are at the end of a spur and are more awkward to reach.

Valentia Island Ferries says it is tired of excuses and it wants the truth.

"They're using state aid rules to create a stumbling block. If they don't want to fund the ferry, can't they at least come out and tell us all the truth and not just give us another excuse," Mr Foran said.