[Sinn Fein]

25 September 2001


State should aid Aer Lingus and rule out privatisation - Ó Caoláin

Speaking at a SIPTU seminar on the future of Aer Lingus in Dublin's Liberty Hall, Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin called for immediate State aid for the national airline in the current aviation crisis and he strongly opposed privatisation. He said:

``We in Sinn Fein are strongly in favour of Aer Lingus remaining in State ownership. This company has been built up over decades to become one of the keystones of the Irish economy, a company which has earned international respect for itself and for Ireland. Aer Lingus was founded at a time when the private sector in Ireland had neither the will nor the capacity to build such a vital strategic infrastructure. It was built up in difficult times and when it prospered it repaid the investment. It is our company and it should remain our company.

``In this crisis I believe the government should make State aid available to the airline without delay. Simply retaining Aer Lingus in State hands will not be enough. If the company is to survive and thrive it must be developed with imagination. That needs real commitment to the company from the Irish government. The current government has not shown that commitment. It is torn between the privatisation agenda of Ministers Harney and McCreevy and the fear of the political consequences of privatisation on the part of Fianna Fáil. There is no vision for the future.''ENDS

Full Text of speech

I want to thank SIPTU for the invitation to address you on the vital issue of the future of our national airline Aer Lingus. The letter of invitation from your National Industrial Secretary Noel Dowling was issued exactly a week before the appalling events in the United States. These events have created an even more critical situation for Aer Lingus. This should be of concern to everyone in this country. As well as being an employer of thousands, Aer Lingus is a flagship of the Irish economy and it is in the public interest for us to ensure its future, including the future employment of its workers.

I am conscious that hundreds of Aer Lingus workers are again looking with trepidation at what the future may hold. It is your lives that are most directly affected by the current difficulties of the company. Hundreds of redundancies have been signalled, with possibly more to come out of Thursday's board meeting. Your first priority, therefore, must be to defend jobs and I am with you 100% on that.

We in Sinn Fein are strongly in favour of Aer Lingus remaining in State ownership. This company has been built up over decades to become one of the keystones of the Irish economy, a company that has earned international respect for itself and for Ireland. Aer Lingus was founded at a time when the private sector in Ireland had neither the will nor the capacity to build such a vital strategic infrastructure. It was built up in difficult times and when it prospered it repaid the investment. It is our company and it should remain our company.

For some time now there has been a drive to privatise Aer Lingus, to sell off this national asset, by one means or another. I believe this drive to privatisation is not motivated by any real concern for the future of the company, or its workers, or its place in the Irish economy. It is an ideologically driven opposition to public ownership of any kind. It is designed to benefit not the workers of Aer Lingus or its owners? - the Irish public - but the privileged few who would profit from privatisation.

I stated in a Dáil debate on Aer Lingus in June that this Thatcherite agenda is best illustrated by the shambles of the Eircom privatisation and the questions arising in the Moriarty tribunal about the Esat Digifone mobile phone licence. The Esat Digifone franchise was sold by the Government for the pathetic sum of 15 million. The company was sold on for 2 billion, making a personal fortune of approximately 250 million for Mr. Denis O'Brien. No doubt others will line up to make similar killings with the privatisation and break-up of the national airline. Is this how the Government wishes to extinguish the proud name of Aer Lingus?

The current undermining of Aer Lingus is sadly reminiscent of the way in which Irish Shipping was dispensed with by the Irish government. There is no reason why an island economy, which is so dependent on the import and export of goods by sea, should not benefit from a dynamic and publicly owned shipping company. Are we really to believe that a State-owned airline cannot be profitably run in Ireland today where annual passenger numbers run into millions? Or is Aer Lingus about to be scuttled in the same manner as Irish Shipping?

In the Dáil debate in June I supported a motion criticizing Minister Mary O'Rourke for her failure to protect or promote the welfare of the company over the past four years; her failure to promote a positive industrial relations climate within the company; her total confusion and lack of vision as to the airline's role and future; her decision to allow the company to be sold by way of a trade sale; her failure to ensure that the Aer Lingus workers were made aware of the Government's intentions. The motion called on the Government to abandon immediately any plans to sell off Aer Lingus by way of a trade sale and recognise that the strategic role of Aer Lingus as our national carrier can be best guaranteed by the airline remaining in public ownership.

As we know the government plans for a quick sell-off had to be abandoned but it is clearly still on the agenda, to be activated at some stage in the future.

There is no doubt about the very difficult situation in which Aer Lingus now finds itself. It had a very profitable year in 2000 with a 6% rise in overall passenger figures on the previous year and a projected 30 million profit.

By June of this year that projection had become a projected 20 million loss. The foot and mouth crisis and the downturn in the US economy and the technology sector combined to hit the transatlantic trade. Obviously the attacks in the US are now having a huge impact which will probably continue for some time.

In this crisis I believe the government should make State aid available to the airline without delay. Such aid was provided after the Gulf War but the government allowed its hands to be tied by the EU. It accepted the dictation of the EU that no such State aid could be given again in the future. Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy reiterated that after the EU Finance Ministers meeting on Sunday. I believe it is fundamentally undemocratic for any government to limit its options or that of a future government which may decide to provide whatever aid it deems appropriate to any State company. This is a basic democratic question and one which now has very direct relevance to Aer Lingus. It is ironic that in the US, the ultimate competitive economy with no state enterprise, substantial aid is being provided to airlines.

There is a danger that those who wish to see Aer Lingus privatised will use the current crisis to further their agenda. That could mean the break-up of the company, the loss of thousands of jobs and the destruction of a strategic pillar of the Irish economy. The airline industry here could quickly become dominated by yellow pack companies with the same anti-trade union policies as Michael O'Leary's Ryanair. Instead of being a gateway to Europe and a bridge to North America this country could become a backwater in aviation. It must not be allowed to happen.

Breaking up Aer Lingus as a result of the current crisis would be short-termism of the worst kind. We have seen how well the company fared in recent years and the benefits for the Irish economy. Tougher times are here but they will not last forever. We need to look beyond the current crisis and go forward with a strategic view of the future.

Of course simply retaining Aer Lingus in State hands will not be enough. If the company is to survive and thrive it must be developed with imagination. That needs real commitment to the company from the Irish government. The current government has not shown that commitment. It is torn between the privatisation agenda of Ministers Harney and McCreevy and the fear of the political consequences of privatisation on the part of Fianna Fáil. There is no vision for the future.

Such a vision is needed more than ever. There must be a recognition that the greatest asset of Aer Lingus is the skilled workforce. They must be central to decision-making for the future. Their rights and interests must be safeguarded. And it must be realized that it is in the interest of all of us for this to remain our company, and for Aer Lingus to be developed and expanded as the national airline of the Irish people.


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