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Thursday, 13 January, 2000, 14:25 GMT
Fears over ferry future

The Campbeltown ferry is up against services like P&O

Fears have been expressed for the future of a ferry service linking Northern Ireland and Scotland.

A question mark hangs over the long-term viability of a service between Ballycastle in County Antrim and the Scottish port of Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre.

Northern Ireland Trade Minister Sir Reg Empey plans to meet Scotland Office minister Brian Wilson to discuss the service, which has been in operation for almost four years.

On Thursday Mr Wilson said it was "essential to establish the level of support" that exists for the cross-channel ferry in Northern Ireland.

"I believe it would be very unfortunate if this service connecting two relatively rural areas was to be lost."

Reg Empey: Meeting Scottish minister
He said in the current climate connections between the two areas should be strengthened rather than weakened.

Ballycastle councillor Chris McCaughan said the service deserves to be supported.

But he believes one of the main problems is that the three-hour service only operates from June until the end of September.

"We would like to see the service extending from April or May right through to October and build it up to six months of the year, that's our hope."

Motorcycle races

If that were the case, it would mean the ferry would be operating at the time of the North-West 200 motorcycle races, which are held in the Portrush/Portstewart area every May.

Mr McCaughan is hopeful that with patience and some financial support, the service will survive.

Ballycastle Chamber of Commerce is establishing links with Campbeltown, in a bid to make the service more viable.

We would like to see the service extending from April or May right through to October and build it up to six months of the year
Ballycastle councillor Chris McCaughan
Chamber president Margaret Gault is involved with a local community business called Craft Connections.

She said: "We are opening up a centre in Ballycastle and through that we're involved with crafts people in Scotland and that's one reason why we wouldn't like to see the ferry closing down."

She acknowledged that the service could not compete for speed with the ferries operating out of Belfast and Larne harbours.

But she said, given time and better publicity, it could become an attractive alternative.

Support across water

Councillors in Scotland are also eager to support the service.

Councillor Campbell Cameron, deputy leader of Argyll and Bute Council, said the ferry was a " major link" between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

"There is much we can do to expand the service to the benefit of both communities," he said.

He also said a study commissioned by the council, and due to be published this month, will show that the service has brought distinct benefits to the local economy.

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