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Tories under fire over emergency tug contract

The Herakles tug, usually based in Kirkwall, provides cover around the Northern Isles.

LOCAL politicians are exerting pressure on the UK Government to ensure the waters around Shetland remain protected by an emergency tug after the current contract expires in March.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael accused the Tory administration of forgetting the devastation caused by the Braer disaster in 1993 – which resulted in a tug being stationed here in the first place – and said leaving the North Sea unprotected would be “reckless beyond belief”.

Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson said there was “understandable concern” in the community given how the contract had been handled previously.

Early in the last parliament, the Tories sought to do away with the tug cover before a backing down partially. 

Scottish secretary of state David Mundell faced criticism over his stance on the emergency tug cover from predecessor Alistair Carmichael following last week's visit to Shetland.

Since then Shetland has relied on the emergency tug vessel (ETV) Herakles, which is mostly stationed in Kirkwall. Robinson pointed out that there had been promises that BP’s Grampian Frontier vessel could be used to provide emergency cover but that was “something that never really materialised”.

The issue was discussed when Scottish secretary of state David Mundell visited Shetland last week to meet council members.

He told Shetland News that he wanted local authorities in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and Highlands to “get round the table with myself and the department for transport and look at what the ongoing position is going to be from next year onwards”.

“I think there’s plenty of time to be able to put into place an arrangement that would go forward from the end of March,” he said, “but I’m keen that we take the discussions forward in as short a time as we possibly and practically can.”

In response, Carmichael said it was “better than him announcing the removal of ETV, but not much”.

Gary Robinson says it would be unthinkable for the waters around Shetland to be left without cover given the volume of shipping traffic.

“It’s no secret that Tory ministers in the coalition government wanted to remove the ETV but were blocked by the Liberal Democrats,” he said. “We now need to get everyone with an interest in keeping the ETV together to make the case.

“The government seems to have forgotten the devastation caused by the grounding of the Braer which led to this tug being stationed here. It is reckless beyond belief that they may leave us unprotected against such a future possibility.”

He added that various other public bodies including the Lighthouse Board, harbour authorities and environmental protection agencies “should be involved in discussions about the tug’s future and are all prepared to contribute if that was necessary”.

Carmichael added that people in the Northern Isles “remember only too well why the boat is there” as a result of the Donaldson inquiry that followed the Braer incident.

MP Alistair Carmichael: even considering leaving isles without cover would be "reckless beyond belief".

“People in Southampton will say it’s not used very much,” he said, “[but] the truth of the matter is it only needs to be used once, genuinely, to realise its potential.”

Robinson said there had been a “good discussion” with Mundell, but it was important to “re-emphasise the importance of having ETVs in areas such as Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles but also around the Highlands coast, and the fact that there’s been any number of incidents wasn’t lost on him”.

He pointed to oil developments west of Shetland and said that, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it was important to “reinforce the point again that there needs to be [a vessel] for the area around Shetland, not least because of the amount of traffic that’s around the isles just now”.

Robinson added that Mundell had indicated he agreed with the point that the Donaldson inquiry findings were “every bit as relevant today as when it was first published”.

“That bodes well for future discussions, but it’s one we’re going to have to press upon the transport secretary probably more than anybody else to ensure we get something in place beyond March next year.”