Orcadian Column, 19 May 2022

“Ferries, ferries, ferries, ferries…. and then some more ferries. And did I mention the ferries?”  So tweeted SNP MP, Pete Wishart last Thursday, peeved by the questioning from opposition MSPs at First Minister’s Questions ‘every week’.

I appreciate that ferries don’t feature prominently in the daily lives of Mr Wishart’s Perth & Kinross constituents. Nevertheless, he also chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster, a role in which one would assume Mr Wishart is required at least to feign interest in Scotland’s ferry network and the importance of ensuring that it is operated by ferries fit for the task of providing lifeline services to island and coastal communities.

With ongoing and extensive disruption on west coast routes, including again this week, not to mention the problems caused by an ageing fleet on Orkney’s internal services, it should not surprise the First Minister that her government’s shambolic handling of the building of two new ferries has come in for such scrutiny and criticism of late.

To recap, Fergusons Shipyard avoided closure in 2014 when then First Minister, Alex Salmond brokered a deal with Yes-supporting industrialist, Jim McColl on the eve of the independence referendum. A year later, Ferguson Marine was awarded a £97m contract to build two Calmac ferries to serve Skye, North Uist and Harris.

In 2017, a year before both vessels were due to be delivered, Nicola Sturgeon attended the launch of Glen Sannox, this time on the eve of SNP party conference. Amid much flag-waving, no-one spotted that the vessel was far from ready to enter the water or that her windows had been painted on. Instead of saltires, red flags should have been popping up all over the place.

Two years later, Fergusons went bust again, prompting Scottish Ministers to nationalise it, taking on its debts and a further £45m in loans. Fast forward to 2022 and the cost of the vessels now stands at £250m with no guarantee that they will ever enter service, such is the scale of the mounting defects.

Despite such catastrophic mismanagement, however, no-one has been held accountable. Audit Scotland reported in March on the lack of a full refund guarantee from Fergusons when the original contract was signed, a hugely risky decision taken in the face of fierce opposition from Calmac. Audit Scotland also found “insufficient documentary evidence to explain why Scottish Ministers accepted the risks”. A profoundly damaging charge in the circumstances.

So it was with great glee that Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth opened a debate last week by informing parliament that the ‘missing document’ had been found. She even waved it around while insisting the emails showed that her predecessor, Derek Mackay signed off the contract. Too bad that Mr Mackay has already resigned in disgrace, albeit over inappropriate messages sent to a 16 year old.

Unfortunately for Ms Gilruth, the emails also showed that Deputy First Minister, John Swinney ‘cleared the way’ for the deal. Moreover, from the government that brought you windows you can’t see through, came email redactions you can, revealing the fears of officials about potential legal challenges to ministerial decisions.

Given the vast waste of public money, the complete lack of transparency and the continued failure actually to deliver ferries that are desperately needed, the public deserves answers over this fiasco. With Jim McColl accusing the First Minister of being a ‘liar’ and the project of being driven by a ‘political timetable’, it is increasingly clear that a public rather than parliamentary inquiry is required.

Clear too is the extent to which the current and future needs of islanders and island communities are routinely relegated in importance by a government obsessed with media presentation but largely disinterested in how or even whether promises are delivered.

Pete Wishart may object, but I fully intend to returning to the subject of ferries again this week, this time in a debate on government plans for carbon neutral islands. A fine aspiration, no doubt, but unless Ministers get on and finally help deliver new, low emission ferries in Orkney and elsewhere, any hope of actually realising those aspirations will be sunk, leaving islanders clinging to more warm words in yet another shiny press release.

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