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MP: coastguard campaign can be won

ISLES MP Alistair Carmichael has called on his constituency to support his attempts to safeguard the Lerwick coastguard coordination centre.

Last week the coalition government announced plans to restructure the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, leaving one 24 hour rescue centre in Scotland, in Aberdeen, backed up by one 12 hour station, either in Shetland or Stornoway.

Shetland is understood to have already been earmarked for closure, but was thrown a last minute lifeline when shipping minister Mike Penning announced a 14 week consultation period to decide whether Lerwick or Stornoway should cover the rest of Scotland during daylight hours.

Mr Carmichael, a cabinet member in his role as deputy chief whip, was in the isles on Wednesday to speak to staff at the Lerwick coastguard station.

During his visit he acknowledged that the last seven days have been his most difficult since becoming northern isles MP in 2001.

Mr Carmichael said that even if the Lerwick station was kept open, it would be reduced to a daylight hours only operation, resulting in job losses or possible redeployment of staff.

“I think the campaign to help safeguard the Lerwick coastguard station is exceptionally useful for me to be able to point to both the strength of community feeling and also a real level of engagement by the industries that rely on the coastguards.” The MP said.

“That helps me enormously to make the case within government, and I see that as a real positive. In fact, if the proposal had not created that level of community reaction, then I would feel I was in a much weaker position.”

The proposals to restructure and modernise the coastguard service have already been worked on under the previous government, and Mr Carmichael said that as a member of the coalition he was now in a position to influence the final outcome.

“I am able to influence decisions in a way which I would not have been able to influence when I was in opposition.

“You have to judge the finished product rather than the worst case scenario. I don’t think that closing the Lerwick station is a sensible way for the coastguard service to go, and I would be exceptionally unhappy if that were to happen; and I think it need not happen and it probably will not happen, because we have got a strong enough case to put within government to ensure that it doesn’t.”

But he was not prepared to speculate on his political future should the campaign to safeguard the coastguard station at The Knab fail.
“Once I start discussing my position then, frankly, I lose the influence I have within government, because once you are discussing this privately or publically, then you are looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

“Our local member of parliament has a position within government that allows him a better level of access to ministers and officials than we have ever enjoyed at Westminster before, and we should be using that opportunity rather than guessing what would happen if we were to get an outcome the community doesn’t like.”

He added that he was convinced that the coalition would last, despite the well publicised setbacks of the past two days, initiated by the Daily Telegraph and others.

“I see the internal workings of the government as much stronger and more robust than that of the previous Labour government,” he said.

The removal of the coastguard station at The Knab would not result in the withdrawal of the Sumburgh based search and rescue helicopter, or the two lifeboats in Lerwick and Aith. It would also not impact on the voluntary rescue teams.