Ferguson Marine ferry fiasco: Stuff your apology, Nicola Sturgeon, let's have a public inquiry – Brian Wilson

Nicola Sturgeon has difficulty understanding what words like “apology” and “responsibility” mean. In her version, it is her exclusive privilege to define the complaint in order to fob it off with generalised faux-regret.

Island communities are already paying a high price for the Ferguson ferries scandal (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Island communities are already paying a high price for the Ferguson ferries scandal (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

In the case of the Ferguson debacle, I am not interested in her heroic declaration that the “buck stops with me” (while passing it to someone no longer available) or her unconvincing explanation of why “we acted for the best”, which I have seen no reason to believe from the outset.

Long before Derek Mackay, now the nominated fall-guy, the Salmond-Sturgeon axis embarked on a course of action dictated by politics. In the weeks before the 2014 referendum, the problems of the Ferguson yard created the opportunity to grandstand for advantage.

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However, these had been known for years and governments of all complexions helped the yard survive with the discreet encouragement of public sector orders. What none of us did was recklessly enter into contracts at open-ended cost which the yard was incapable of fulfilling.

The question was asked at the time: if the yard’s previous owners, who struggled to ensure its survival, had been given the same support that became available to Jim McColl, then firmly in the Salmond-Sturgeon fold, would it have gone bust in August 2014 – a month before the referendum?

McColl, who soon discovered he had entered a vipers’ nest, later said that Salmond “approached me every time there was a company in trouble in Scotland”. In the Ferguson yard, he saw “an opportunity” but it was crystal clear that opportunity depended on public procurement via the Scottish Government.

In other words, it is unlikely one’s pal would buy a shipyard without expectation of orders. On August 25, Salmond tweeted: “Delighted Clyde Blowers have been named preferred bidder for Ferguson shipyard.” A month later the first CalMac order, for a small vessel, duly arrived. By then, Salmond was out and Sturgeon was in. They lost the referendum but there was still a shipyard to support.

None of that back story was the business of the recent Auditor General’s report but it is crucial to what unfolded thereafter. The next CalMac orders were not for small vessels the yard could easily handle but for two much more complex ones which, as history confirms, it was fatally ill-equipped to build. But who would be the bearer of that bad news to Jim McColl?

The imperative was to give Ferguson’s that order, come hell or high water – or, more precisely, in face of dire warnings of commercial and construction risk from the nominal client, Caledonian Marine Assets Ltd, another Scottish Government entity.

Perhaps the most damning line in the Auditor General’s report – and there are plenty to choose from – relates to how Sturgeon’s government treated this advice: “There is no documented evidence to confirm why Scottish ministers were willing to accept the risks of awarding the contract to Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, despite CMAL’s concerns. We consider there should have been a proper record of this important decision.”

Now, get your heads round that: a massive fix, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions, taken against expert advice and there is not a single piece of paper to support the reasoning. If a glib, self-serving “apology” covers that, then Scottish democracy and accountability are in an even worse place than previously suspected.

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Of course, one “risk” that did not even rate a mention was “risk” to island communities which will pay the price for years to come, and are doing so now – in business failures, ongoing depopulation, social anxiety as people lose all faith in a service on which they are obliged to depend.

So stuff your apology, Ms Sturgeon. This scandal cries out for a public inquiry to get at still-concealed evidence. Meantime, charter the vessels required to relieve the hardship this cocktail of political chicanery, utter incompetence and disregard for consequences has created.

If “the buck” represents anything more than weasel words, Ms Sturgeon should either resign or expose herself to the same level of scrutiny that she used to be equally brass-necked in demanding for others.

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