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Connectivity / Governments knew what caused October communication outage but never told the public

Repair work on the damaged Shefa-2 cable was carried out at the end of October off Shetland by the cable repair ship Cable Vigilance. Photo: Ronnie Robertson.

GOVERNMENT and its agencies knew from the outset that the damage to the Shefa-2 subsea cable last October was caused by a fishing vessel – but did not relay that information when asked by the media.

E-mail communication released under freedom of information (FOI) legislation also confirms that the Scottish Government as well as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) were both confident from early on that the damage to the cable was an accident.

There was some wild speculation, mainly in the national media but also some local, that Shetland could have been the target of a Russian act of sabotage when the isles lost almost all its communication links in the early hours of 20 October.

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has now condemned the lack of any quality communication as “irresponsible”.

“Allowing all sorts of wild speculation to run on social media when our governments knew the truth is irresponsible to say the least,” he said.

“That is then exacerbated by the failure to tell the public what they knew when asked directly by local and national media.”

The incident happened at a time the back-up cable, running north via Faroe, also had developed a fault and was in the process of being repaired.

Communication threads between His Majesty’s Coastguard (HMGG) and the Scottish Government show that as early as 4am on 20 October coastguard staff were aware of the incident and believed the “subsea cable has been severed by a fishing vessel”.

By 4pm the same day, the UK Government was “confident that it was an accident”.

The fishing trawler in question did not report the incident to Shetland Coastguard, as had been expected, and its identity has been redacted in the documents released under FOI.

Many unsuccessful attempts were made by local journalists to receive confirmation from either the MCA or the two governments as to the cause of the incident.

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Plans by emergency planners to release a public statement the following day (21 October) to “quell any rumours re sabotage” never happened.

The Faroese owners of the Shefa-2 sub-sea cable said they understood the damage had been caused by the fishing gear and that is what Shetland News reported.

A month later, in a written response to a parliamentary question by Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart, the Scottish Government confirmed they had known that from day one.

They said: “The Scottish Government received confirmation from the Maritime Coastguard Agency on 20 October 2022 that the vessel which caused damage to the primary telecommunications feeding Shetland had been identified and is a UK registered fishing vessel.”

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael.

Yet, a few weeks later, the MCA in Southampton told Shetland News that the agency does “not comment in individual referrals or investigations”.

A spokeswoman added that the incident was still investigated under the Merchant Shipping Act and the MCA would not comment on anything “that could still have an investigative strand to it for legal reasons”.

Carmichael said: “If you wanted to teach a class of student PR officers how not to communicate with the public then you could do no better than to show them this story.

“Community engagement by governments has been a shambles from the moment this whole incident happened. It should not have taken a freedom of information request to bring this into the public domain.”

Local MSP Beatrice Wishart added that she was concerned that the isles’ vitally important communication links were so vulnerable.

“While it is a relief that the incident was not the product of a deliberate plot to cut Shetland’s communication network, it is concerning that there is not greater resilience in the infrastructure serving Shetland,” she said.

“We need modern, secure and resilient systems for Shetland in the 21st century, whether it is our internet connectivity, transport connections or critical services.

“This incident highlights the benefits of cable corridors for the safety of fishing vessels with increasing cable infrastructure across the seabed as well as integrity of supply.”

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