A £4 million contract for a taxpayer-subsidised ferry service is being investigated by the Audit Office, the News Letter can reveal.
The probe is into the tendering process for the contract to run the ferry between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island, announced by the Department of Regional Development (DRD) in April.
The route has been served by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) for 12 years, during which the number of visitors to the island has increased to about 50,000 each year.
CalMac, which has almost three decades’ experience in ferrying passengers to remote islands, is owned by the Scottish government and opened a new ferry terminal in Ballycastle three years ago.
But in April, Sinn Fein Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said the company had lost out to Co Cork businessman Ciaran O’Driscoll. Mr O’Driscoll is to use the same boat as CalMac, the MV Canna – leasing it from the owner, Caledonian Maritime Assets (CMA) – although a CMA spokesman said it had yet to sign a contract with Mr O’Driscoll.
Mr O’Driscoll has run an Irish government-subsidised ferry from Cape Clear, off the coast of Cork, to the mainland for more than two years.
However, despite DRD saying that it believed Mr O’Driscoll would take over the Rathlin route on June 1, he has still not done so.
Mr O’Driscoll told the News Letter that he expected to take over the route on July 1.
MEP Jim Allister asked the Northern Ireland Audit Office to investigate the tendering process after he was contacted by concerned local residents.
“This should be an up-front public process as it involves a lot of public money and we want to get the best possible service for the islanders and visitors to Rathlin,” he said.
The Audit Office said it was investigating the complaint with DRD. There is no suggestion that Mr O’Driscoll has done anything wrong in relation to the tender process.
When it was announced that it had lost the contract, CalMac managing director Lawrie Sinclair said: “Caledonian MacBrayne believes that through the service offered in recent years we have established a track record as a safe, reliable and dependable ferry operator.
“We also believe we submitted a robust bid which would offer significant improvements for the island and its community.”
When contacted by the News Letter, a CalMac executive said he was unable to provide an assurance that his company would continue to keep the ferry running beyond July 1 if Mr O’Driscoll missed that deadline.
It is understood that Mr O’Driscoll is to meet some of CalMac’s staff in Ballycastle today for discussions.
A spokeswoman for the DRD said: “Following a request from the NIAO, the department is currently investigating concerns raised regarding the procurement procedures for the recently awarded contract for the Rathlin ferry service.”
Mr O’Driscoll said the Audit Office investigation was a matter for DRD rather than himself.
He said the new service would utilise the MV Canna and another vessel.
According to a written answer in the Dail, Mr O’Driscoll’s company has been fined twice during the period of its Cape Clear to Cork service – 2,278 for unauthorised use of a back-up vessel and 599 for not providing contracted sailings.
But Mr O’ Driscoll disputed that his ferry service in Cork had been fined: “Some of the subsidy was withheld,” he said.