Northern Ireland’s Coastguard headquarters was left dangerously undermanned for more than half of 2013.
An official assessment of the manpower levels at the Belfast Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (or MRCC, which – despite its name – is actually in Bangor) revealed that personnel numbers fell below a safe level for almost 57 per cent of shifts in the year.
The sheer extent of the understaffing came to light yesterday following a parliamentary question from MP Margaret Ritchie to the Department for Transport.
The department had responded: “During 2013 Belfast MRCC was staffed below risk assessed levels on 414 occasions out of 730 shifts. This represents 56.7 per cent of all shifts in 2013.”
It added: “Her Majesty’s Coastguard has recruited
additional staff at Belfast MRCC during 2013 to address staffing levels; as a result Belfast MRCC is now staffed above complement.”
It also said a “pairing arrangement” was in place, linking two MRCCs together so they could give one another support.
Ms Ritchie, SDLP MP for South Down, said that the understaffing was a consequence of a “dangerous cuts agenda”, adding: “Despite warnings the British Government slashed Coastguard services in 2011, claiming that this represented modernisation. Well the response to my Parliamentary Question shows that instead we have been left with a threadbare service that is dangerous and lacks investment.”
The station had been threatened with closure in 2011, and Leslie Cree, North Down UUP MLA, said that although it was still in existence, it had to bear “considerable new responsibilities” – including looking after “a large swathe” of the west Scotland coastline – with the Government slow to increase staffing levels to match.