SHIPPING minister Mike Penning is remaining firm over the proposed closure of coastguard stations, telling a Westminster debate this week “no change is not an option”.
It is understood a final decision on proposals to slash the number of 24-hour coastguard stations in the UK from 18 to just three and five daylight-only bases will be taken next month.
Northern Ireland has just one station, the Belfast Coastguard based at Bregenz House in Bangor. It co-ordinates rescue missions across the province.
In the controversial proposals published by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency last year, only Belfast or Liverpool will survive.
The plans were put out to consultation which was then extended to May.
Mr Penning now says the final decision will be announced by July 19.
It is understood that it cannot be announced before the report of the Transport Select Committee next Thursday.
Following the announcement, a second wave of the consultation process will then kick in and that is expected to last up to six weeks.
Mr Penning told a Westminster debate: “I said from day one that what comes out the other end of this consultation process will not be what we go in with, but that we cannot end up with the status quo.
“The service has to modernise, it has to have proper resilience and it must be fit for the 21st century.
“The government will announce their conclusions before the summer recess — as we have said all the way through, they are likely to be different — and then I will reopen the consultation.”
North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon told the News Letter yesterday she remains “quietly hopeful” about the survival of Bregenz House.
Northern Ireland MPs made their voices heard during a Westminster hall debate on the issue on Tuesday.
Chaired by South Antrim MP Willie McCrea, three Ulster MPs – Naomi Long (East Belfast), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and David Simpson (Upper Bann) – spoke up for Bregenz House.
Mr Simpson said the coastguard plans have opened up a “real hornet’s nest” and pushed Mr Penning to agree with first minister Peter Robinson that reducing the only station in Northern Ireland to daytime service “would have a significant effect on the levels of service and rescue”.
Ms Ritchie said the process in Northern Ireland has been “marked by uncertainty for many people”.
“The government now seem to be re-evaluating and rowing back on their initial proposals,” she said. “It is clear that they underestimated the value of the local knowledge developed over time by our vastly experienced coastguard personnel, and that they were prepared to risk losing this vital asset.”
Ms Long said while everyone supports the concept of modernising the coastguard, there is concern at the idea of removing Northern Ireland’s only station.
“The Belfast Coastguard station is the only one in the UK with a direct land border with another European state, so it fulfils a unique role in providing liaison and co-ordination with the Irish coastguard,” she said.
“I am concerned that some of the close working relationships, which are not just beneficial to Northern Ireland, would be lost as a result of any changes to and relocation of that co-ordination point.”
Mr Penning responded by describing his visit to Bregenz House in February as like “ground hog day”, referring to the last time he had been in the province as a serving soldier.
“Ms Ritchie referred to my visit to Bangor. It was a wonderful visit, and it was like ground hog day, because I had not been in the province since I had served in another way.”