Officials who visited Bangor last week to discuss the consultation document that threatens to close Northern Ireland’s only coastguard base left their public audience “as confused and fearful as ever.”
Ian Graham, branch secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union that represents coastguards, spoke to the Community Telegraph following the public meeting chaired by the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) on March 3, at the Marine Court Hotel.
Of the panel, consisting of the Bill McFadyen, the regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland and Ian Burgess, the coastal safety manager, Mr Graham said: “They didn’t really answer any of the questions from the public adequately.
“Bill McFadyen admitted he hadn’t been involved or consulted at all before the consultation document was released.
“The ideas in the proposal didn’t come about because of the spending review, they have been about for the last couple of years — and it’s all been done behind closed doors. Not a single coastguard I have spoken to — many of whom have been trained to the highest level — agree with the proposals that pit station against station.
“The panel also admitted at the meeting that the only testing of the new technology system they hope to introduce ‘was a table top exercise’.
“The statistics they used in a slideshow to the audience were also misleading — they were only using incident start times, when a lot of rescues can last for hours.”
Currently, 3,500 volunteers are based around the UK, supported by full-time professional sector managers.
Around this resource, Mr McFadyn said: “That whole area is going to be beefed up. No matter what happens in the future we will still have our volunteers around the coast and an increase in the number of 24/7 professional officers who train and support those volunteers.”
However, at a similar public meeting the panel held in Scotland, MCA chiefs were warned that dedicated teams on cliff, mud rescue or inland searches may give up their voluntary roles if Lerwick coastguard station was to close.
Mr Graham felt too “that the proposals put too much responsibility on the coastguard volunteers — and that is unfair.”
North Down MP Lady Hermon said the issue of the coastguard centre was one of the few issues that united all of the political parties in Northern Ireland.
She said: “All of them who had representatives here this evening were speaking with one voice. There was a very clear view that NI must have its own coastguard centre.”
Last month, the First and Deputy First Ministers visited Bregenz House to show their support for the organisation.
Mr Robinson said: “The Executive will do all in its power to keep this coastguard station open, and even reducing it to a daytime service only will impact significantly on service delivery levels.”
The consultation is open until March 24. Visit www.mcga.gov.uk for further information.