The unit’s failure to bring the story to the Government’s attention was the source of a row in the Dáil yesterday. The unit disseminates a summary of news headlines to government ministers and their departments.
On June 13, this paper ran a story signalling Aer Lingus was to introduce routes from Belfast. It cited the possibility of a route between Belfast and Heathrow. The obvious implication was Aer Lingus would have to transfer Heathrow landing slots from one of the three airports in the Republic, with Shannon the main candidate.
On August 7, Aer Lingus confirmed it was transferring the slots from Shannon to Heathrow.
The Taoiseach has insisted he only became aware of the move when informed by Transport Minister Noel Dempsey on August 3. But in the Dáil yesterday, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny questioned how the monitoring unit could have missed the Irish Examiner’s story of June 13. He said the Irish Independent had a similar report on the day.
What made the situation stranger was that Department of Transport officials did notice the story. Secretary-general of the department Julie O’Neill admitted bringing it to the attention of colleagues.
“What is the point in having a communications unit that appears to be selective or that, for some unusual reason, missed one of the major stories of the summer?” asked Mr Kenny.
“Why were these two articles from both newspapers not circulated to the minister in June, long before this came to a head in August?”
Mr Kenny said it was “frankly incredible” that Ms O’Neill would not have brought the story to the attention of Mr Dempsey.
Mr Ahern said the Examiner story was “not in a prominent position” in that day’s paper and, while Ms O’Neill had seen the article at the time, “the department did not believe at that stage that it was a major story”.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore suggested the monitoring unit was for “political purposes”. “The unit tots up the number of times Professor [John] Crown or any other critic of the Government appears on radio and sends the information to the departments so that the political apparatchiks who do not want to see the critics anymore can say that to the news editors.”
But Mr Ahern responded: “This is a reprehensible attack on civil servants by the leader of the Labour Party. He is entirely wrong.”