A Bready busman who says he was put out of business due to the failure of the Northern Ireland authorities to effectively follow European Union regulations says it’s time to get out of Europe.
William Leonard, who has for years campaigned against the monopolisation of local school transport contracts by firms from the Republic of Ireland and has lobbied the former Vice-President of the EU Commission and Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas on the subject, has now asked: what’s the point being in the club if you don’t follow the house rules?
“As for European Union and Brexit, get out because our boys, they don’t know what the laws are. Whenever they do enforce a law, they enforce the laws that are holding you back, they don’t enforce the law that makes it handy for everybody,” said Mr Leonard.
Mr Leonard’s up-close-and-personal and largely unsatisfactory encounter with EU regulation has led him to side with those seeking a voluntary knock-out from the political Euros on June 23.
“Too much bureaucracy. Years to get anywhere, to try and get an answer from anybody, far too much red tape. So you’re just adding all these other countries into your red tape instead of dealing with yourselves. Why? What’s the point?”
Mr Leonard’s long-standing complaint as the boss of Leonard Travel, was that up to 90 per cent of the former Western Education and Library Board’s (WELB) private hire home-to-school transport tenders in Londonderry and its hinterland from Strabane to Claudy were held by ROI firms.
He was backed by the Federation of Passenger Transport NI (FPTNI), which five years ago, estimated that at least 50 schools in the Londonderry area used firms from across the border and that this was threatening to put local operators out of business.
Under EU law ‘cabotage operations’ are national road passenger services for hire and reward carried out on a temporary basis by a carrier in a host member state or the picking up and setting down of passengers within a host state.
Mr Leonard said EU directives pointed out there may be grounds for refusal if a service seriously affects the viability of a comparable service operated under one or more public service contracts.
He argued that the home-to-school contracts weren’t temporary and shouldn’t have been accessible to firms from across the border.
He claimed the former WELB, now under the aegis of the Education Authority, the former Department of Environment (DoE), now the responsibility of the Department of Infrastructure (DI), and the Department of Education (DE), had let him down.
“We’re no further forward. They are misinterpreting the law. In every response to every question I believe they have misrepresented the EU law.
“You can only come in and committ cabotage on a temporary basis but anytime anybody asks they bring the international thing in. But the journeys were never international, because they are lifting in Northern Ireland and dropping in Northern Ireland. It was never part of an international journey.
“It’s nothing to do with the ‘Free State’ men. The ‘Free State’ don’t allow us in at all. They are enforcing the law 100 per cent. [They are following the cabotage rules] 100 per cent and they are 100 per cent right, where our boys didn’t follow it at all, fought with their own people. Now that’s just in cabotage. So if that’s only in that example, how many other places is it happening in other industries?
“They’re helping the outsider, they’re not helping their own people, so it has to be happening in other industries.”
A DfI spokesperson said: “The European Commission has not provided any official guidance on bus cabotage.
“In July 2011, as a result of concerns raised by NI bus operators about the extent of cabotage in the north-west by Irish bus operators, the former DOE began an investigation. In July 2013, following engagement with the Department for Transport in London, research into European Court of Justice case law and having met with Commission Officials, DOE published guidance for those seeking to procure or undertake bus cabotage operations. This guidance is still current.“
The Sentinel has asked the Education Authority and DE for their interpretation of the ‘cabotage’ regulations and will carry their responses if and when received.