Rathlin Ferry Operator Replaced Following Failure

By: Gary Andrews
SPIRIT OF RATHLIN 18/6/17. Copyright © Gary Andrews.
SPIRIT OF RATHLIN 18/6/17. Copyright © Gary Andrews.

Northern Ireland’s lifeline ferry service from Ballycastle to Rathlin has faced a very dramatic week.

Following weeks of speculation, on 11 January, the Rathlin Island Ferry Company announced an almost immediate end to the service.  In the early afternoon, the company, owned by Ciarán O’Driscoll, issued the simple message;

“It is with regret that RIFL are ceasing to operate the ferry service between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle this afternoon 11.01.2023.  Our last sailing will depart Ballycastle at 16.00. 

Because of financial difficulty an Insolvency Practitioner has been appointed to place the company into liquidation.“

The Rathlin Island passenger catamaran RATHLIN EXPRESS. Copyright © Gary Andrews.
The Rathlin Island passenger catamaran RATHLIN EXPRESS. Copyright © Gary Andrews.
Rathlin Island Ferry Company website https://rathlinballycastleferry.com/

The company’s liquidation follows recent industrial action on the ferry routeUnite the Union had revealed that ferry workers hadn’t received any pay rise for three years.  Despite talks between the union and the Rathlin Island Ferry Company and a previous hold put on industrial action, the first strike occurred on 5 January.  Further industrial action was due on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout January.

Government Department Reacts

In response to the service cessation notice, the Department for Infrastructure said;

“Following several weeks of engagement between the Department and Rathlin Island Ferry Limited in relation to matters arising from the contract between them, including the financial position of the ferry company, the Department received notification today from the company that it is to cease trading with immediate effect.  

The Department recognises the importance of the ferry service for the local community and has been taking forward work on potential contingency arrangements with the expectation that these could be implemented urgently, and which include seeking to protect the interests of the staff as far as possible.  It is our plan to provide a further update on these arrangements as soon as possible.”

Department for Infrastructure press release 11 January 2023 https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/news/statement-about-rathlin-island-ferry-service
KINTRA II. Image: Kintra Tours
KINTRA II. Image: Kintra Tours

New operator rapidly appointed

Within hours, the Department for Infrastructure had announced that Dunaverty Limited would take over the Rathlin Island to Ballycastle route from 13 January 2022.  Initially, five return sailings per day with a passenger only vessel will be offered. 

Charles Stewart of Dunaverty Limited commented;

“I am delighted to have been awarded the contract to operate the ferry service between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle and look forward to working with the Department, the existing workforce and the local community to continue to develop and grow this lifeline service.”

Department for Infrastructure press release 11 January 2023 https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/news/new-ferry-operator-rathlin-island

Kintra Boat Tours

Dunaverty is better known as the parent company of Kintra Boat Tours.  Their KINTRA II took over the Ballycastle – Rathlin service as planned on Friday, 13 January.  

Costing £1 million, the 14 metre KINTRA II was only delivered last year from Blyth Catamarans, Canvey Island, Essex. As well as the 82-passenger catamaran KINTRA II, the company also owns the KINTRA.  The KINTRA is a 10 metre catamaran, carrying 55 passengers.  Built in 2005, KINTRA was previously named SERENITY III.

The company offers a range of tours around the North Eastern County Antrim Coast.

The current tender requires the operator to use the Department of Infrastructure car ferry SPIRIT OF RATHLIN as the mainstay of the route to ensure the vital link for goods to Rathlin as well as allowing residents to bring their car to the mainland.   According to the Department for Infrastructure, the SPIRIT OF RATHLIN will resume service under the new operator once all the relevant approvals are in place with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

KINTRA. Image: Kintra Tours.
KINTRA. Image: Kintra Tours.

Previous business failures of O’Driscoll family

The other vessel used by the Rathlin Island Ferry Company was the RATHLIN EXPRESS catamaran.  As she belongs to the previous ferry operator, it is not expected that she will see service any time soon in view of the financial issues of her owner.  

The RATHLIN EXPRESS  is currently moored at Ballycastle Marina, in a similar location to where the BRIXHAM EXPRESS was anchored several years ago.  The BRIXHAM EXPRESS was also owned by the O’Driscoll family and had been used on a subsidised ferry service from Torquay to Brixham until suddenly withdrawn by the company.

The O’Driscolls also operated the Cape Clear, West Cork, ferry from 2006 until 2008.  However, in strong parallels to the Ballycastle – Rathlin situation, the service was axed after crew members went on strike over pay cuts and changes to hours.  As a result, the NAOMH CIARAN II, which had been used on the route was sold.  That vessel now operates between Cleggan, Co Mayo and Inishturk Island.

BRIXHAM EXPRESS at Ballycastle on 2 December 2017. Image: Gary Andrews.
BRIXHAM EXPRESS at Ballycastle on 2 December 2017. Image: Gary Andrews.

History of the tender

The Ballycastle to Rathlin ferry route is a subsidised service, tendered by the Department for Infrastructure (Northern Ireland).  Until 1996, the service had been operated by the Islanders using converted fishing boats.  Increasing safety standards forced the then Department of Environment (NI) to tender the service.  

The contract was awarded to Caledonian MacBrayne who took over from the 1996/97 year.  Calmac gained a further tender in 2003.   However, due the restructuring in Scottish ferries Calmac was only able to take a rolling one-year contract. The Rathlin Island Ferry Company was successful in the next competition, taking over in June 2008.  However, the CANNA of Calmac was to transfer to the new operator.

The veteran Rathlin Island vehicle ferry CANNA. She is soon to be replaced by the new purpose-built SPIRIT OF RATHLIN. Copyright © Gary Andrews.
The CANNA seen at Rathlin in 2017. She was soon after replaced by the new purpose-built SPIRIT OF RATHLIN. Copyright © Gary Andrews.

Having won subsequent tenders, the current contract was awarded to the Rathlin Island Ferry Company in 2016, linked to the arrival of the SPIRIT OF RATHLIN newbuild in 2017.   The tender was for an initial 3 year contract then an option to extend the contract for a further two periods of 3 years each plus one final 12 month period (a maximum contract period of 10 years).

The estimated annual value of the contract is 600 000 GBP to 750 000 GBP per annum. The expiry date of the current contract was to be 12 November 2026. Procurement law allows Direct Award Contracts in certain circumstances.  Ensuring a lifeline ferry ferry for an island of 150 permanent residents is one such event, hence Dunaverty immediately taking over the service. However, we can expect the longer term contract for the Rathlin ferry service to be retendered in due course.

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