Report and Editorial Comment on Public Meeting on
Gourock-Dunoon Ferries Friday 8th December in Dunoon Observer Friday 15th
Below are electronic versions of (1) most of the first two
pages of the Dunoon Observer 15th December 2006 (2) Editorial comment
in the same issue .
No boats - no votes!
A full house of politicians got the message from the people of Dunoon
on Friday night - "enough is enough - get our ferry service sorted
A packed Queen's Hall - estimated to be around 300 people - was a clear
indication that patience was running out over the issue, as a public meeting
called by Dunoon Community Council gave the elected representatives the
opportunity to hear at first hand the views of local electors.
And a quote which will be remembered for some time came from Ronnie Smith
as he wound up the meeting with a stark message to the top table:
"No boats - no votes!"
Mr Smith stepped into the breach as chairman at short notice, but he ran
the meeting in an inspired fashion. He is secretary of Dunoon Community
Council, and is also a member of the Pier Pressure Group, along with Professor
Neil Kay and Captain Sandy Ferguson. The group has been fighting the corner
for the retention of two ferry services for some time, and has been instrumental
in keeping the issue alive and in the public eye.
Mr Smith began by outlining the sequence of events to date, a catalogue
of mismanagement, incompetence, and indecision over a quarter of a century
which had created continuing uncertainty over the lifeline Dunoon-Gourock
route, a situation which prevailed until the present day.
He explained that the purpose of the meeting was to seek a way ahead,
and warned that he would not allow it to be used as a political platform.
The platform party consisted of Jamie McGrigor, Conservative list MSP.
Mary Galbraith, Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, George Lyon,
MSP for Argyll and Bute and a Liberal Democrat, Councillor Brian Chennell,
chairman of Bute and Cowal Area Committee, Jim Mather, SNP list MSP, Alan
Reid, Liberal Democrat MP, and Alyn Smith, SNP, MEP.
The members of the platform party were asked to give their view on the
situation. George Lyon said local people had to be consulted, but pointed
out that Western Ferries had 85 percent of vehicle business. It would
be watching, and would certainly complain to the EU if its position was
threatened, and rightly so. Jim Mather observer that the turnout said
it all in terms of popular feeling. The £2.5m subsidy paid to Calmac
was effectively a subsidy to Western Ferries because the frequency restriction
on the Calmac route made it an unattractive proposition for vehicle drivers.
He had talked to bidders who felt the dice were loaded.
He expressed disappointed at the non-attendance of both Calmac and Western
Ferries, and felt that this was a discourtesy.
For Labour, Mary Galbraith pointed out that her own background was Kintyre,
so she had an understanding of the situation faced by the people of Cowal.
There was a need for clarity on hte Calmac route, and it needed to be
Jamie McGrigor said he was not surprised people were angry, but he then
raised hackles when he asked what would happen if there were no Western
Ferries; "It would be extremely dangerous," he said, "if
we went back to a monopoly, "we don't want to risk putting the private
operator out of business."
This statement engendered mutterings from hall which were certainly not
supportive. Ronnie Smith interjected by suggesting that an extended service
by Calmac, or any other operator into Dunoon Pier was unlikely to put
Western Ferries out of business.
He said: "Western Ferries' profitability is at the level most Scottish
companies would kill to achieve. It is very firmly established."
Cllr Brian Chennell said that while the history was important they had
to look forward, commenting: "The ferry service is too important
to be a political football.
"Our position is clear - we want a centre to centre vehicle and passenger
He posed the question: How can we promote Dunoon as the Gateway to the
National Park if we don't have cars coming into it? That's ridiculous."
Alan Reid suggested that a passenger-only option might be better than
what existed at the moment, and that the £2.5m currently expended
on subsidy could perhaps be better spent on two high-speed passenger ferries
to give a frequent service.
"It's important that we get your views on this," he said.
It was hard not to suspect that this was precisely the opportunity that
Ronnie Smith was waiting for; he immediately asked the public for those
supporting such a concept to raise their hands.
There was a unanimous lack of support from the floor for the proposition.
Not a single hand came up.
MEP Alyn Smith said the difficulty arose from the fact that there were
a number of layers of UK government which were simply not coming together.
"The rules being applied just don't match the Scottish reality,"
He went on to explain that Europe stretched from the Arctic circle to
Cyprus, and that EU law was designed to be interpreted to suit particular
requirements. However, under the terms of the Scotland Act, which created
the devolved government, the interpretation taken was the harshest possible.
The situation was made worse because access to the European Court of Justice
was through the Secretary of State for Scotland, not the Scottish Executive.
"Any normal country would interpret what fits their reality best,"
he said, "we take the most literal interpretation, and that's the
Professor Neil Kay was called upon to speak from the floor. Professor
Kay has been one of the most outspoken critics of the way the ferry issue
has been handled, and was recently accused by Alan Reid of being a member
of 'the SNP letter-writing squad' in the pages of the Dunoon Observer.
He opened his presentation by pointing out that he had been a member of
a political party, and had in fact acted as constituency secretary during
his membership. That party was the Liberal Party - a disclosure which
brought forth considerable laughter from the audience, but was received
rather less warmly by the two party representatives on the platform.
Professor Kay reinforced Mr Smith's views on what had transpired in Europe.
He said that putting subsidised passenger-only vessels on the route made
little sense - unrestricted passenger/vehicle carriers would generate
a great deal more revenue.
Turning to Europe, he said: "The answer you get depends upon the
question you ask. The commission doesn't determine strategy - they are
"We were told that if the tender process didn't work there were other
options on the table; the tender process should have been completed a
year ago, so it's reasonable to assume since it's a year late the alternatives
"Where are they?
"Why not build and lease the ships? there's nothing to stop you under
EU rules from doing that."
George Lyon said that the options open were a passenger only service;
under pressure to explain what else was being considered he said that
another was an unrestricted vehicle/passenger service.
However, Cllr Chennell said that this was not quite his understanding
of the situation; He had also attended the meeting with Tavish Scott,
and understood the position to be that the route could have an increased
passenger-only service or the status quo; the option of an unrestricted
vehicle/passenger service had not been discussed.
He added "How on earth are we supposed to decide on options if we
don't know what they are?"
Cllr Dick Walsh said that the meeting gave him an opportunity to express
his personal frustration, and his views echoed both Alyn Smith and Professor
"This has dragged on since before devolution," he said.
He remembered plans to consult on the future of the route being raised
by a Scottish Office minister as far back as 1996. There had been meetings
in Westminster, Brussels and Edinburgh and things were no further forward.
"Having supported our bid for cash to create a breakwater and ferry
linkspan, they have created so much uncertainty as to its future use with
the potential for large sums of public cash to be wasted if the issue
is not appropriately resolved."
Cllr Bruce Marshall said that his view would not be popular when he suggested
that Western Ferries had provided an excellent service for 30 years and
was capable of coping with vehicle traffic on its own.
He was right; his comments attracted a storm of disapproval from the body
of the hall.
Captain Sandy Ferguson said that he had been working for Western Ferries
as a ship's master when they operated the Islay route."They got a
lucrative offer from Mexico for the Isle of Jura, which was operating
the run at the time, and they sold her and left the people of Islay in
"Don't pretend they're doing it for the community- they're doing
it for the money - that's why they're here and not on Islay."
The meeting concluded with closing remarks from the platform party. All
of them said that the message from the floor - the desire for an unrestricted
vehicle/passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon town centre. Both
Alan Reid and George Lyon gave a commitment to work closely with Alyn
Smith in an attempt to come up with a solution.
Western Ferries' Managing Director Gordon Ross said on Monday that he
hadn't attended the meeting because he hadn't been invited.
"That's perfectly true," said Ronnie Smith. "In the past
Calmac have always been invited to meetings of this sort and have always
declined, and in fairness - given the number of people already on the
platform, we decided to invite neither. However on previous occasions,
latterly when Ken Cadenhead was managing director, he came as a member
of the public and spoke from the body of the hall, and there was nothing
to stop Mr Ross doing the same."
In a joint letter to this week's Safety Valve Alan Reid and George Lyon
said that they would work with Argyll and Bute Council and Scotland's
representatives in the European Parliament to achieve the best service
that European rules will allow.
"We have told Transport Minister Tavish Scott the views of the local
community. We have urged him and Argyll and Bute Council to go back to
Brussels and secure a far better deal than the restricted service that
former Transport Minister Lewis Macdonald and local Councillors Walsh
and Macaskill negotiated with the Commission in 2003."
Box Insert: We have something in common with Edinburgh - we both
have a Scott Monument - but ours is the linkspan - a monument to Tavish
Scott - Ronnie Smith
The organisers of last Friday's meeting have triggered something
which may have far-reaching consequences for Cowal.
They brought together members of the public in large numbers with a simple
message: "No more excuses, no more time wasting, get on with it and
Or as Ronnie Smith so succinctly put it: "No boats, no votes!"
As a slogan to drive a campaign it might not be up there with 'Remember
the Alamo', but it's brutal in its message.
The politicians have gone back to their respective places of government
with a clear remit. The excuses that have been trotted out in the past
won't wash any more, the plaintive howls that 'we're doing our best but
the EU keeps blocking us' comprehensively rubbished by the arguments of
Professor Kay and Alyn Smith, who brought clarity and logic where previously
there had been fog and gobbledegook.
Ronnie Smith's role in Friday night's proceedings cannot be understated.
He ran the meeting like a maestro conducting an orchestra, and it truly
was his finest hour. By seizing the opportunity at a critical stage of
the proceedings to achieve a nil vote for a passenger-only service he
concentrated the minds of the top table and effectively put an end to
any illusions that a passenger ferry was a vote winner.
Councillors Chennell and Walsh displayed sound judgement and argued the
But let's not be deluded into thinking that the fight is over.
It hasn't even begun.
We've been told that we'll be 'fully consulted'.
Don't be fooled - this is a device commonly used by employers shutting
down factories who have to abide by a statutory consultation mechanism.
The consultation usually takes the form of: "You're sacked. What
do you think about that?"
We have been consulted. After Friday they know what we want.
An end to the nonsense, the excuses the handwringing; no more "it
wisnae me it wis the Tories/the SNP/The EU/the Sandbank WRI/The Clyde
Cottage Nursery" (cross out where applicable)
Neither Alan Reid nor George Lyon came out of the exercise covered in
glory. It's sad, therefore, that in a letter to the Observer this week
they should continue to blame others, in this case not the previous transport
minister but the one before him (who happens to have been the last Labour
holder of the post) and Argyll and Bute Councillors for the current situation.
We are long past this petulant, point scoring nonsense.
Alyn Smith and Professor Neil Kay have shown the way ahead, and that this
is, as the Americans say, a 'can do' situation.
So do it.