By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Last-minute negotiations are under way in an effort to keep the Jeanie Johnston replica ship afloat until the end of September with a package that will save the troubled project from liquidation.
This would involve the three-masted Famine ship being used for corporate entertainment, chartering, sail-training and as a museum.
The firm involved in the project, the Jeanie Johnston company, wants to tie up the various strands of the deal before a crux meeting of Kerry County Council on July 15 that is expected to end its involvement and trigger a crisis.
The original plan was for the Jeanie Johnston to sail to the U.S. in July 2000 for the millennium celebrations. The journey was scuttled, however, with the reason given that the ship had not yet undergone sea trials. A similar trip was planned and scrapped the following year and it soon became apparent that renovations were in reality far behind schedule.
Originally, it had been planned that the Council and Tralee UDC would take over the vessel unencumbered under a new company called Seaholly and inject a maximum euro 1.27 million to tied the project over until the end of the year.
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Brendan Dinneen, secretary and general manager, said a major company that did not wish to be identified, has agreed to underwrite the costs of the three-month rescue package if financial agreements can be tied down.
However, the rescue plan received a blow last week when the Ford company, which had booked the vessel for the Cork sailing week it sponsors July 14-19, pulled out.
“We want to put together a package that we can put to creditors,” Dinneen said. But this would be contingent on the Marine Department paying out the balance of a euro 500,000 grant and the Arts Department and Shannon Development removing charges of euro 950,000 and euro 1 million, respectively.
“All of the sensible advice is to liquidate to protect the directors,” Dinneen said. “But the directors have great difficulty protecting themselves and abandoning the creditors, the employers and the ship. They are trying desperately to find a way of not liquidating.
“We might be seen to be foolhardy and irresponsible by attempting to pull something out of the fire. But we believe that it is worth it.”
Dubbed the ship of peace, the replica sailing vessel was conceived as a cross-border tourism heritage project in 1993 but it has run way over budget and behind schedule.
The finances surrounding it have become increasing complex and there are fears it could be liquidated and the ship sold off at a fraction of its cost.
In February, then Marine Minister Frank Fahey ruled out more cash aid from the State and said the final cost was expected to be euro 14.35 million.
He said it was started by a group of “well-meaning people who had a dream and it went entirely wrong.”
A focus group report to the Irish government didn’t identify any-long term use for the vessel that would not involve a further cash hemorrhage.
It would cost a further euro 1.27 million a year to operate it as a sailing vessel, euro 760,000 a year as a static museum ship, and euro 152,000 a year to mothball it.
A trans-Atlantic voyage taking in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, New York, Boston, Quebec and Montreal would cost a minimum of euro 630,000.
A structured winding down of the project with the Council taking over was the only way to avoid a forced disposal of the vessel.
Dinneen said a “tortuous” process of ensuring an orderly winding down had been going on since but now the Council had “effectively” pulled out.
“In their very painful and intensive evaluation they came up against a few issues they couldn’t handle,” he said. “One is that cumulatively they are in for about euro 3 million which they have to carry over the next 15 years.”
Dinneen said that trying to broker a rescue deal was far from simple.
“You have government departments who are charged with responsibilities by statute that can’t readily agree to gift charges or lift guarantees without being in fear of being in breach of their duties,” he said, adding that if creditors moved against the project “then no one will get anything.”
Dinneen said the plan was to sail to Dublin and Belfast and the ship would go into “museum mode” in each city. A group was interested in a charter for a voyage to Spain in late August. The famine ship would also earn money with corporate entertainment functions using outside caterers.
Launched by President Mary McAleese in 2000, the project has received cash from peace groups, industry, emigrant groups and central and local governments.
The vessel’s construction was a high-profile reconciliation project allied to the peace process that involved cross-community workers from north and south of the border.
The Jeanie Johnston is a replica of a ship built in Quebec in Canada in 1847 that never lost a single passenger to disease or the sea during 16 trans-Atlantic voyages.