Civil servant ‘not misled’ over Shannon move

THE top civil servant at the Department of Transport has claimed she was “extremely disappointed” Aer Lingus failed to take on board the Government’s concerns that the opening of the airline’s Belfast base would lead to the cancellation of its Shannon-Heathrow service.

However, the transport secretary-general Julie O’Neill rejected suggestions she had been misled by Aer Lingus chairman John Sharman over the airline’s plans for transferring its Heathrow slots from Shannon to Belfast.

Ms O’Neill appeared before the joint Oireachtas committee on transport yesterday to answer questions about her department’s role in the matter.

It followed last month’s revelation by the Irish Examiner that senior civil servants were aware of the planned closure of the Shannon-Heathrow route for more than six weeks before the Government claimed it had been formally notified of the decision in late July.

“Initial concerns at official level about imminent implications for Shannon of an Aer Lingus Belfast base were alleviated by the reassurances I received when I spoke to [Mr Sharman] on the morning of Friday, June 15,” said Ms O’Neill.

She told the committee she believed Transport Minister Noel Dempsey would have an opportunity to discuss the issue with Mr Sharman before the airline made a final decision.

Ms O’Neill said she took a clear understanding from her phone conversation with Mr Sharman that she would hear back from him given the “depth of concerns” she had expressed about the potential loss of the Shannon-Heathrow service.

She also acknowledged the focus of her department’s officials in mid-June was on getting to know Mr Dempsey who had beenappointed on June 14 and on briefing him about several pressing issues thatrequired his immediateattention.

“It ought to haveoccurred to us to raise [Shannon-Heathrow] with the minister and to check with Aer Lingus during July if there was any developments in respect of the proposal,” admitted Ms O’Neill.

However, she stressed no decision was taken to withhold information on Shannon from Mr Dempsey.

Ms O’Neill said she doubted if the minister had been made aware of the matter in mid-June, it would not have made “a blind bit of difference to the actual outcome”.

The secretary-general also revealed she had offered to step aside from conducting an investigation into the matter, which was ordered by the minister after she became aware that she had been informed of the threat to the Shannon-Heathrow service in mid-June.

Fine Gael transport spokesperson Fergus O’Dowd said it was “highly unbelievable” Mr Dempsey had not been informed of the issue as a matter of urgency given there had been nine phone calls between department officials and Aer Lingus within a 24-hour period in mid-June.

Clare TD Tim Dooley (FF) said he remained “absolutely baffled” why the minister had not been given information that had the potential to have a devastating effect on the Shannon region. His constituency colleague Pat Breen (FG) said there seemed to be “an anti-Shannon agenda” in the department.

Meanwhile, Cityjet isexpected to announce plans to launch a service between Shannon and Paris to improve connectivity for the region.

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