Ritchie Backs Coastguard in Commons Speech

THE consultation currently running to rationalise the coastguard service and probably lead to the closure of  the Bangor coastguard centre, is being fiercely resisted by the maritime sector in Northern Ireland. Blue water tourism, the merchant vessel sector and the fishing fleet all depend on a fast and efficient service which many believe is being threatened by unnecessary changes. South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has thrown her full weight behind the HM Coastguard service operating in Northern Ireland and has backed them in her speech in the House of Commons today (Wednesday 2nd February 2011). Margaret Ritchie’s Full Speech Delivered To The Commons. Margaret Ritchie addressed the House of Commons and said, “My Constituency of South Down plays host to two of the three fishing ports in Northern Ireland, and as a community we share a long, proud and at times difficult history in fishing and seafaring “Over the years my Constituency has seen its share of tragedies at sea and also miraculous rescues, and each time – whether it be to undertake these rescues or bring the bodies of family members home from the sea –  we look to our Coastguard,  and on all occasions, whether tragedy befalls or not, we praise the Coastguard for the amazing service they provide to those at sea. “In Northern Ireland, the Bangor Coastguard Station is facing possible closure with the proposal to transfer its operational role to another station hundreds of miles away such as in Aberdeen in Scotland. “Opposition to the consultation proposals is mounting by the day and I have sought an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond. “The Northern Ireland Coastguard centre at Bangor  provides a vital service to the fisheries and tourism sectors right from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough. For such a service to be axed will put not just put livelihoods at risk, but lives too. The courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores must not be taken for granted by government and funding must be protected. We must remember that the Coastguard here does not just protect the coast but also Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, along with providing an inland mountain rescue service for the Mournes and the Sperrins. It is also the point of contact for all helicopter operations in Northern Ireland. “These current proposals will leave Northern Ireland  without a full-time Coastguard station. “This frontline emergency service has saved countless lives since its establishment and in the past year alone, its Northern Ireland team has dealt with more than 700 incidents. For the SDLP, saving lives will always come ahead of saving money. “The document which has gone out to consultation proposes that the Belfast Lough station might become some sort of part-time station. Or it might close, in which case our nearest coastguards would be in a part-time station in Liverpool. The nearest full-time station would be at Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. Certainly co-operation is important and our co-ordination with Scotland and the South of Ireland have been invaluable in saving lives in previous rescue missions. However, it is vital that we retain a full time station in Northern Ireland with local people providing the local knowledge that is necessary for the safety of our coastal areas. “Sir Alan Massey, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, has indicated that the closures can be offset with the introduction of new technologies such as Google Earth. While I support the introduction of such measures that can help save lives, they must supplement rather than replace existing provisions; nothing can replace the local knowledge of the waterways that has been built up over generations in areas such as South Down. “Previous attempts by Government to implement large scale technological developments have frequently encountered delays and cost overruns. We must ensure that we do not lose our existing resources and rely on the hope that these can met with new technologies alone. Indeed this same type of technology, upon which the Coastguard is meant to become dependent, has just been discarded by the UK Fire and Rescue service as they couldn’t rely on it. We therefore risk people’s safety becoming dependent on information technology which is not yet implemented or even designed. “These are not abstract statistics but rather the lives of those who work in dangerous conditions to support some of our most vital industries. In recent weeks we have had a very serious incident at sea off the coast of Ardglass. Thankfully, due to the professionalism and speedy efforts of the local Coastguard this did not end in tragedy and the crew are now safely back with their families. “I hope that this near-tragedy will focus the attention of the Ministers involved in coastguard provision and that the proposals to remove the Bangor Coastguard will be reviewed with immediate effect. Northern Ireland needs to retain this service and I wholeheartedly oppose any attempt to remove it.”