Ferguson Marine ferry fiasco: Only a public inquiry will get at truth about missing ships – Brian Wilson

The new Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, John-Paul Marks, visited the Ferguson shipyard on April 22. We learn this from documents published on the Scottish Government website.

Work continues on the unfinished Glen Sannox ferry at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Work continues on the unfinished Glen Sannox ferry at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

According to the civil service note, Mr Marks – having heard the latest prognosis on the two hulks – urged “honesty over optimism”. That is commendable. However, at this early stage of his journey into the vipers’ nest, Mr Marks might note the more frequent antonym for “honesty” is “dishonesty” or “deceit”.

The Ferguson saga continues to be riddled with both, as epitomised by Ms Sturgeon’s histrionics and her deputy’s shamed silence at this week’s First Minister Questions. Swinney knew perfectly well he approved the Ferguson contract on the recommendation of Derek Mackay. So why not say so from the outset?

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However, this concentration on a single document is a diversion and, as Audit Scotland pointed out, its magical emergence does nothing to answer wider questions about why warnings of extreme risk were ignored, creating a toxic relationship from the outset between shipyard and client.

The answer is they were ignored because the whole operation was a political stunt without regard for consequences beyond short-term political advantage; a metaphor for how Scotland is run. Certainly, the last consideration which exercised Sturgeon, Swinney or Mackay was the implications for island communities if the whole thing went wrong – as it duly did.

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So I suggest Mr Marks continues his fact-finding mission by visiting Uist. Unfortunately, he will have to fly as there is no ferry available. The 29-year-old ‘Lord of the Isles’ is, to use a technical term, knackered; so much so, she has been withdrawn for service in the hope of sufficient first aid to keep her sailing for the rest of the summer.

This, Mr Marks would find, is where deceit and incompetence on a grand scale collide with reality – fragile island economies in despair; cancelled bookings by the shed-load; total uncertainty about what the months, indeed years, ahead hold as lifeline services are turned into lotteries of chance.

Mr Marks could return to St Andrew’s House with another pithy aphorism: “Charters over chancers.” In the face of a crisis that has been evolving for years, the obvious step of enhancing the CalMac fleet by chartering back-up vessels is dismissed. How often must the Lord of the Isles, never mind its elderly sister ships, break down before that happens?

In his search for elusive “honesty”, Mr Marks must meet the chairman of Caledonian MacBrayne, the SNP’s hand-picked man on the bridge. This will involve travel to Copenhagen where that elusive gentleman resides.

First, the PermSec will surely wonder how this scandalous appointment was achieved – whereby the individual who headed CMAL, the organisation which failed to supply CalMac with ferries, is now silenced by being handed the same role at CalMac itself. Corruption comes in many forms.

And what about developments at the Ferguson yard? On that question, the papers on the Scottish Government website are more revealing than the petulant battle of semantics at Holyrood.

According to the director of vessels at CMAL: “Ongoing design changes affecting the constructability of the vessels… should be seen as a significant risk to the project, the impact of which is not currently accounted for in either vessel programme or risk register.” Seven years on!

In a briefing to ministers dated April 28, a senior civil servant warned: “It remains difficult to assess if the build is on track… Some of the performance information provided by Ferguson Marine is largely generic and does not present the level of detail needed to determine the health of either project.”

So don’t get sucked into shielding ministers, Mr Marks. That’s how your two predecessors ended up as risible figures. Honesty and duty of care demand two urgent steps. First, extend the CalMac fleet to protect the islands against the worst impacts of ministers’ failure to maintain it.

Second, there must be a judge-led public inquiry into this whole multi-faceted, colossally expensive scandal. If honesty is the objective, that’s the only way to get at the truth. But who is interested in the truth?

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