Michael Gove can fly back to London after hearing about the state of the Western Isles’ ferries. We have to live with it.
On Tuesday, I attended the third Islands Forum in Stornoway. The theme was “connectivity”.
After covering the forum, where the secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove, and transport minister Fiona Hyslop spoke to me about how important island communities are to both Governments, I was scheduled to travel back to Uist.
It won’t surprise many Western Isles locals reading this to hear that I didn’t make it there.
As I write, I’m still in a hotel in Stornoway, with the Leverburgh to Berneray ferry cancelled, thinking about how grim the state of our ‘connectivity’ really is.
It seems almost too perfect a metaphor to be real: after Michael Gove delivered his speech announcing that he was going to propose a “task and finish group” to “look at” how to address the ferry crisis in the Western Isles, he got on a plane and left.
Meanwhile, people in the islands were left stranded that very day.
A double layer of mechanical failure
Every ferry disruption we face in the Western Isles is a problem, but this week’s has been particularly galling.
MV Loch Portain, which usually sails the Sound of Harris, has been operating on only three of its engines after a mechanical failure.
That means it can’t sail in poor weather. For a ferry operating in the Outer Hebrides in October, that’s essentially a death sentence.
Another ferry, MV Loch Bhrusda, was brought in to cover the route, which is how I was able to get to the Islands Forum at all.
But on Tuesday, I woke up to the news that MV Loch Bhrusda had broken down too. This time, it was an issue with the navigational system that saw it pulled from service.
When the ferries that are taking over from broken-down vessels break down themselves, that’s not a problem that calls for a discussion group to be formed. That’s an emergency, and it demands the most urgent action possible from those in power.
‘If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am’
In comparison, what Michael Gove did was essentially fly in, take a look at a horse disappearing into the sunset, and propose a task group on closing the barn door.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. Maybe I’m being too harsh: if ferry links to the islands are so dire, shouldn’t we be supporting politicians using private travel if it means they can get here at all?
The thing is, I think Michael Gove might learn more about our connectivity crisis through one experience with our ferries than from all the forums and discussion groups in the world.
If you are privileged enough yourself to never worry about being ‘connected’, you will never fully understand the communities whose funding and livelihood are in your hands.
When it comes down to it, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m here on work expenses, so I won’t be out of pocket for the extra nights at a hotel. I work remotely, so I won’t lose holidays or wages.
But, for many other people put in similar situations by the ferries’ crisis, the effects are far more devastating.
‘People across the islands have been patient’
Fiona Hyslop told me at the Islands Forum that people in the Western Isles must “be patient” as they wait for details on how the Scottish Government will support them following the loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds of business.
To that, I say: transport minister, we have been patient.
People across the islands have been patient as they wait to see family and friends after innumerable ruined visits.
Business owners have been patient as, after losing hundreds of thousands of pounds to the ferry crisis, they wait for help from the government that has not yet materialised.
I am being patient as I sit in my hotel room, refreshing the CalMac website, waiting for someone to tell me when I can go home.
Perhaps Fiona Hyslop, who took the role of transport minister just a few months ago, still has patience to spare. For communities in the Western Isles, it’s just about run out.
More local reporting from the Western Isles:
- Uist water shortage: What happens when the water goes off on an island in a storm?
- ‘Pulse of the landscape’: North Uist artistic collective celebrates latest exhibition amid fight for island’s art course
- ‘There was a time when it was better than this’: Local reaction to Loganair winter timetable change