I am all in favour of those responsible for the great ferry shambles being held to account and equally clear that Transport Scotland (i.e. the Scottish Government) “fining” Caledonian MacBrayne vast sums piles irony upon scandal and farce.

“Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes?”, as they used to say in Rome. Who will protect us from the protectors? If ever there was a branch of government that should be in the dock rather than behind the prosecutor’s desk it is Transport Scotland, who remain immune to accountability with protection from Ministers they lead by the nose.

The vast majority of what CalMac has been punished for in this pointless merry-go-round of public money is attributable to damage inflicted upon them rather than through their own negligence. Operating a ferry network without enough ferries, and even fewer of serviceable vintage, is a challenge not built into any contract.

Heaven knows, there is plenty to be accountable for. I heard on radio the other morning, the proprietor of Brodick’s excellent Auchrannie Hotel explaining an offer to give visitors an extra night free, if the ferry fails to sail. They cannot sell these rooms until they know about the ferry by which time it’s too late. Auchrannie, I’m sure, will survive but how many businesses have perished?

The Herald: Will the new SNP leadership make a difference to Calmac?Will the new SNP leadership make a difference to Calmac? (Image: free)

Or take another example. This week’s Gaelic census statistics confirmed a downwards trajectory in the islands. One factor, by common consent, is the unreliability of ferry travel which has been the tipping point for many families about whether or stay or go. It doesn’t have to say “Gaelic” on the label for policies to drive depopulation, accompanied by cultural and social decline.

Almost nobody in these places believes CalMac is the primary culprit. There is plenty wrong with how the company is run, even within the constraints imposed. But it wasn’t CalMac who ordered ferries from a shipyard that could not build them and it wasn’t CalMac who, for a decade before that, failed to maintain the essential formula of one new vessel a year.

Neither did CalMac ask for the Danish businessman, Erik Østergaard, to be foisted upon it as chairman immediately after he vacated the same role at CMAL, the procurement quango at the centre of the Ferguson debacle. All these decisions rested with Transport Scotland and SNP Ministers, whose shared interest is in covering the tracks and keeping control.

At other times, these might be debating points and we could merely reflect on the idiocy of one arm of the Scottish Government (Transport Scotland) fining another arm of the Scottish Government (CalMac) with the net result that the Scottish Government will have to put more money into subsidising CalMac in order to pay the fines.

However, the politics of idiocy are now at a critical stage and questions of how ferry services are to be governed in future need answers very soon. The current CalMac contract runs out in September and decisions are already well overdue. Will there be a direct award of the new contract to CalMac or will it go out to tender? Just as critically, what changes in governance will accompany that decision?

Unless signals have been misread, the first answer is pretty obvious. CalMac will get the contract renewed without others being invited to bid which they probably wouldn’t do anyway because, on past experience, they would be pretty sure it was a waste of time. So CalMac will continue but on what terms?

At present there is a tripartite structure of Transport Scotland (i.e. the Scottish Government), CMAL and CalMac as operator of whatever vessels they are provided with – a rather basic matter over which they have no control. That has been the responsibility of Transport Scotland and CMAL, with well documented consequences.

One of the options being touted is a merger of these two units which would place even more power in the hands of exactly the people who have done so much damage over the past decade and, specifically, of Transport Scotland civil servants whose record is one of consistent failure and arrogant disregard for islands that lie a long way from Edinburgh.

Nothing is beyond belief in this saga, but if the architects of everything that has gone wrong are rewarded with even greater control it would be an affront to every community that has suffered under the regime. It would guarantee continuation of patronising and inflexible Edinburgh rule with CalMac as supplicants and islands as sacrifices.


CalMac gets record £316,000-a-month in poor ferry performance fines

Swinney fails to commit to reconsider CalMac ferry contract award plan

The alternative is not the status quo which does not have a lot going for it either. It is a radical transfer of responsibility and accountability to these island communities which this whole costly, incompetent set-up is nominally supposed to serve.

It has been a crucial part of Transport Scotland’s policy to keep islanders away from any role in decision-making, as reflected in appointments to boards of both CMAL and CalMac. Until very recently, neither board included a single islander. The job is done by any old “quango tourists” from a magic circle guaranteed not to trouble the Scottish Government.

I lodged a Freedom of Information request last month, asking how often any Ministerially-appointed CalMac board member has visited any port served by the company. This is basic information which obviously exists. They refused to give an answer – because it would confirm that the CalMac board is a sham, designed to be remote from and unrepresentative of the people it is supposed to serve.

If the Scottish Government has any empathy with island communities - Kate Forbes, are you listening? - it will take this opportunity to turn the whole thing around and put islands at the centre of ferry governance and operations, rather than shut out by a neo-colonial administration in Edinburgh which loves to talk about “our islands” while administering their steady decline.

So roll on accountability but let’s apply it to those who created these problems over the years. If CalMac ran up a £316,000 fine in a month, what punishment should be facing John Swinney whose fingerprints have been around for ever?