During their first year in office, the present Government of Montserrat took a decision to cancel the Jaden Sun's ferry contract that provided vital access for the island. It was a decision that caused great anxiety and wrath amongst the local population who relied on the ferry for its ease of travel but also as an economic lifeline, providing a measure of light cargo access into Montserrat. At the time of this decision, MNI Alive wrote on the record; "This decision doused the embers on a flickering local economy and rendered the private sector, as well as everyday citizens further burdened with hardship."
The MCAP Administration, mainly via Premier Easton Taylor-Farrell and his Deputy Dr Samuel Joseph, spoke of the cost saving measures that cutting the ferry service would have provided for Montserrat. Their advocates on social media were also loudly stating the same.
It would seem that the public of Montserrat - both at home and abroad - were intentionally misled by Premier Easton Taylor Farrell, his deputy Samuel Joseph and all those who championed getting rid of the Jaden Sun ferry at the time.
A recent report released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) titled, "Montserrat Financial Aid" spoke of the situation surrounding the cancellation of the Jaden Sun ferry by this MCAP Administration. From what I read in the report and listening back to what the people of Montserrat were told at the time, it draws down that one thing is abundantly clear. Unnecessary hardship and economic difficulty were placed on the people of Montserrat by a Government in power intent on carrying out an ill-fated decision because they were more interested in being seen as "tough decision makers" as opposed to a government that showed heart and compassion to its people who were begging them not to cancel the ferry.
Let's go back briefly. Listen below to what the public were told as to why this government cancelled the ferry service:
In contrast, this is what the FCDO Report had to say about the ferry cancellation; "A decision was taken by GoM to suspend the ferry service in 2020/21 in response to the impacts of COVID-19, which seriously disrupted movement of people to and from Montserrat. There were concerns about the value for money represented by the model used to operate the ferry, largely based on government’s subsidies and increasing year on year costs. As noted in the previous annual review, notwithstanding the sudden pressures and need for quick decisions, there was insufficient consultation on the decision to cancel the service, which resulted in a significant financial settlement with the ferry operator."
On the issue of cost savings, can it be argued that cancelling the ferry actually cost the people of Montserrat more, by way of economic loss for small business people but also in an additional financial burden on the already strained finances of the island? The report went on to state; "due to the urgency of the decision making, contractual commitments and liabilities were overlooked. This resulted in significant costs rather than the anticipated savings in the access ringfence, which could not be realised."
The present government of Montserrat came into power and met a ring-fenced ferry budget as the statement above indicated. Due to their decision to cut the ferry, the allocation for ferry access was significantly reduced. According to the FCDO report; "A ring-fenced allocation of $5.4m had been allocated to access operations from 2016 to 2020. With the curtailing of ferry operations in September 2020, the assigned budget in 2021-22 was reduced by a factor of 66.67% to $1.8m, aligned with GoM plans."
To further highlight the economic damage done to Montserrat by the loss of the ferry service, the report mentions in very clear terms: "By the end of end of quarter 4 and at the time of writing this review, no progress had been made on taking actions to reinstate the ferry, which is essential to ensure travellers’ and residents have access to other islands and to complement the air access, which is somewhat limited due to the small carrier (8-seater Islander). A suitable ferry would also enable the transport of small cargo, needed to transport more goods to the island and augment commerce opportunities. Cargo is currently limited to a fortnight service, which results in higher costs and limits availability of products on island. Funding would need to be allocated to allow the ferry service to re-start as well as drafting a PPP and test the market to have a more financially viable option to sustain the service. Ferry operations were previously being subsidized in the order of 66%."
Readers may recall that in 2021/22 this Government attempted to look at bringing back a ferry service. There was much excitement in the air amongst the travelling public over this. However, the cost of rash government decisions and poor policy often have a longer lasting adverse impact that can cripple even the best of intentions. The FCDO Report on this move to bring back a ferry service, highlights very clearly, that due to insufficient monies, to re-engage a new ferry operator on an 'as needs be' basis proved tough. Here is why: "In 2021/22, the Access team focused on engaging the market to pre-qualify ferry operators, so that services could be drawn-down, on a needs basis. One ferry operator was pre-qualified in the three-year Framework Agreement in October 2021. However, with an assigned budget of $1.8m, the Access Division explained that it was not possible to call-down on ferry services and the passenger movement level did not warrant this due to the impact of Covid-19."
The FCDO report was very thorough in speaking about the forward access strategy for Montserrat and this idea being thrown about of Montserrat having a Twin Otter service. That section of the report we will get into in a separate piece.
With access being so critical for Montserrat, both economically and socially, it still dumbfounds anyone to assess why the Jaden Sun's contract was so suddenly cancelled when it proved to be such an important lifeline for Montserrat.
The FCDO's assessment in their report clearly shows that this government misled the people of Montserrat and brought unnecessary hardship to bare upon its residents and citizens.