THERE was uproar among local councillors over the potential downgrading of Clare Bus, following the decision to transfer the responsibility of the county’s rural transport service to West Limerick.
At Monday’s monthly Clare County Council meeting, elected members expressed their major concerns over the proposal and unanimously spoke in favour of retaining the service’s office in Clare.
Currently, the Feakle-based office oversees the countywide bus fleet, but it’s feared that the loss of contract for services to Limerick Local Link, such as the booking of trips and updating drivers, will significantly impact the bus service.
The decision from the National Transport Authority (NTA) has been heavily criticised by local representatives of Clare County Council, with many urging the Government to intervene before the “most vulnerable people” in the county are affected.
Caher councillor, Pat Hayes (FF) described the NTA announcement as “quite disappointing” and voiced his fears that elderly people and those with disabilities would be most impacted if bus services were to diminish.
“Clare Bus look after the needs of the most vulnerable people in our county,” he said.
Acknowledging the service as a “community-based organisation” that made over 55,000 journeys across the county last year, Cllr Hayes said the recent decision has put the future of Clare Bus “on the line”.
Reiterating the social importance of the service, especially for elderly people in rural Clare, Mr Hayes said a crucial factor when encouraging rural development is the issue of transport.
“Not so long along ago we stood outside here [Clare County Council office] celebrating the success of Clare Bus purchasing a new bus.
“What signal does that send out to the people of Ireland when we are trying to get people to volunteer?
“It says a lot about the country and the way it has gone,” added Cllr Hayes as he raised the importance of local jobs for local people.
Killaloe-based councillor, Tony O’Brien (FF) backed calls to keep Clare Bus office operations in Feakle and said the service is a “lifeline for many, many people.”
“It is a local service provided by local people – it is an attack on rural Ireland,” said the frustrated councillor.
“When you talk to a local dispatcher the bus could go off route to pick up someone with a disability,” added Cllr O’Brien.
Councillor Pat Burke (FG) agreed and said that the decision from the NTA is yet “another blow to rural Ireland”, while his East Clare colleague, Councillor Joe Cooney (FG), described the decision to contract out Clare Bus services to outside of the county as a “disgrace”.
“There is a serious concern going forward especially for the people with disabilities,” said Cllr Cooney. “I’m calling on Clare County Council to do their upmost to save this service”.
Sixmilebridge councillor, Alan O’Callaghan (FF) urged the local authority and the Government to get involved, while Miltown Malbay councillor Christy Curtin (IND) described the outsourcing as a “grave injustice”.
“Clare Bus is accessible for people of Clare by the people from Clare,” said Cllr O’Callaghan.
“Local knowledge is the best – we need to keep Clare Bus in Clare,” he added.
Describing the recent decision as “disgraceful” Shannon-based Councillor Mike McKee (SF) said he cannot understand the decision to move vital office services to West Limerick.
Councillor Anne Norton (IND), Clare Crusaders clinic manager, said that the Barefield-based children’s charity relies heavily on Clare Bus and that everything must be done to keep the rural transport service in the county.
In light of this, Mayor of Clare, Councillor Michael Begley (IND) said that it is “awful” to see such a “professionally managed” organisation which provides a “vital service” being interfered with from the outside.
While, Clare County Council chief executive, Pat Dowling acknowledged and agreed with local councillors that it is important to highlight and discuss the change in Clare Bus services, he outlined the fact that local bus services will not be affected.
Keen to point out the fact that buses will continue to run as normal, Mr Dowling recognised the concerns that the changes could potentially impact the long-term future of Clare Bus.
“It does not mean an abolition of the service but the moving of certain services,” he reassured councillors.
A signed petition will now be sent to Minister for Transport, Shane Ross (IND) to urge the Government to intervene in a bid to retain full Clare Bus services in the county.