Islanders angered by Braer disaster 'secrecy': Will Bennett in Lerwick reports on the mood at the Donaldson inquiry

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The Independent Online
THE sense of outrage felt by Shetlanders over the Government's decision not to appoint a public inquiry into the grounding of the oil tanker Braer was thrown into sharp relief yesterday.

As Lord Donaldson heard evidence in a wood-panelled hall in Lerwick, there were only 10 members of the public present. Yet the night before a community centre near by was packed with angry protesters.

Lord Donaldson's inquiry is not an investigation into the Braer disaster, although it was set up as a result of it. His much wider brief is to look at pollution from merchant ships around the coasts of Britain, and most of the evidence has been heard in London.

On the Shetland Islands there is respect for the thorough way the former Master of the Rolls is going about his task but contempt for the Earl of Caithness, Minister for Aviation and Shipping, who refused to order a public inquiry by a sheriff. The fear locally is that the full details of how the Braer's engines broke down causing her to drift on to Garths Ness, near the southern tip of the islands, may never come out.

At the protest meeting, Jonathan Wills, a local author and journalist who has written a book on the Braer incident, denounced the Government's 'patronising authoritarian attitude'. Many questions remain unanswered, he said, including how long the Braer drifted out of control before contacting coastguards, whether there was a fire in her engines, and whether there was something wrong with the engines before she left Norway.

The incident is being investigated by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the Department of Transport. A spokesman said yesterday that a 20 to 30-page report will be released later this year but that the detailed evidence given to the investigation branch would not be published.

Jim Wallace, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, told the meeting: 'We in Shetland are not satisfied with just the MAIB inquiry and the Donaldson inquiry on the wider issues, although both have a value. They do not meet what most people in this community want.'

In March, a petition signed by 6,000 people, 40 per cent of the adult population, demanding a public inquiry, was presented to Lord Caithness. Isobel Mitchell, the organiser, said afterwards that she was 'appallingly received' by the minister.

The same lack of confidence in the Government was a consistent theme of the evidence given to Lord Donaldson yesterday, the first time that he had heard submissions in the islands. Mr Wallace told him he had discovered that, in 1979, the Shetland Islands Council had told the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that 'a major pollution incident would occur' unless a salvage tug was made available. Nothing was done. He added that unless action was taken, 'we could be as vulnerable next January as we were last January'.

The submission from the Shetland Islands Council warned that 'if radical and positive action is not taken by government . . . to solve the problems faced by bulk shipping there will, despite the best efforts locally, be a significant increase in ship accidents and consequent pollution'.

Both the council and Mr Wallace complained that the Government and the International Maritime Organisation have been too slow in developing radar transponders to be installed on ships so that they can be tracked. Only five meetings on the matter have been held since 1988.

Shetland, much nearer to Norway than it is to London, has often felt ignored by those in power. After the shock to the community caused by the Braer incident that feeling is stronger than ever.