On Wednesday, Bertie Ahern said former chief executive Willie Walsh and his colleagues Brian Dunne and Seamus Kearney had tried to steal the semi-state’s assets and “shaft” staff.
The three were linked with a management buy-out of the company in 2004 but did not pursue the move.
“I’m glad those individuals went on to prove their worth in the financial markets, but at least they didn’t do it at the expense of Aer Lingus,” Mr Ahern said.
But in the Dáil yesterday, Mr Rabbitte demanded an apology and accused the Taoiseach of having seriously defamed Mr Walsh and his colleagues.
“That was a serious defamation of a person or persons who are not in the House to defend themselves. It was a serious abuse of parliamentary privilege for populist and electoral gain. An outrageous breach of privilege,” he said.
Mr Ahern’s comment was criticised by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, Caoimhghin Ó Caolain of Sinn Féin, Green Party leader Trevor Sargent and Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins.
Tánaiste Mary Harney also distanced herself from the Taoiseach’s comments, saying they did not represent her “perspective on the matter”. She also suggested, as Government press handlers had already done, that Mr Ahern had meant to use the word “strip” instead of “steal”.
But in a statement released through British Airways, where he is now chief executive, Mr Walsh defended his stewardship of Aer Lingus.
“History will prove that Willie Walsh’s foresight to take Aer Lingus into the private sector is the right course of action, and we’re delighted his outstanding leadership skills are firmly embedded at British Airways,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the Oireachtas Transport Committee heard yesterday that Aer Lingus would be left vulnerable to a takeover bid if the Government significant reduced its shareholding in the company.
That was according to Dr Aisling Reynolds-Feighan from the School of Economics in UCD, who was one of a number of parties presenting their opinion on the sale of Aer Lingus.
Also at the committee meeting, Dan Loughrey from Chambers Ireland said the sale of the airline needed to be moved forward.
Government hopes to sell in June have now been abandoned leaving an autumn sale as the only option, despite a risk that the delay will reduce the value of the airline.