Dempsey defends ‘farcical’ investigation

EMBATTLED Transport Minister Noel Dempsey last night insisted there was nothing wrong with his key official heading an investigation into her own failure to inform him of the looming Shannon crisis.

Mr Dempsey claimed an independent inquiry into the actions of his department’s secretary general Julie O’Neill would serve no purpose, as he defended her €58,000-a-year pay rise.

The minister said the 27% increase for Ms O’Neill, which takes her annual salary to €270,000 — €30,000 more than Mr Dempsey earns — was decided by an independent review body for all civil servants on her senior grade.

Opposition parties demanded an outside investigation into why a June memo marked “for the minister’s information” regarding the threat posed to Shannon by Aer Lingus plans to shift Heathrow services from the mid-west to a new Belfast hub, failed to reach him.

Mr Dempsey did not learn of the Aer Lingus decision until the end of July and was still not informed of his department’s prior knowledge of the airline’s thinking until a freedom of information request from the Irish Examiner revealed the matter this month.

An internal investigation into the breakdown in communication headed by Ms O’Neill was branded a “farce” by Fine Gael after it emerged Ms O’Neill herself had been in possession of the Shannon information and not told Mr Dempsey in the six weeks before Aer Lingus formally announced the move.

The minister stood by the transport department’s own inquiry and ruled out an independent one. “Another inquiry to say what? What Julie O’Neill has said?

“She pointed the finger at herself in her report and was honest. None of us is perfect,” he said.

Ms O’Neill states in her 36-page report that she was made fully aware on June 14 of the threat to the Heathrow service.

She accepted another department official, John Murphy, sent her two emails on June 14 setting out the threat to the Shannon slots. She spoke to Aer Lingus chairman John Sharman on June 15 to discuss the crisis.

“I was reassured by what the chairman had to say and considered the immediate urgency had gone out of the issue,” she states.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Bertie Ahern denied the Taoiseach had also been aware of the Aer Lingus plan in June, despite reports his close associate and member of the airline’s board Chris Wall had known of the potential Belfast transfer.

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