Curious case to answer

Why was Transport Minister Noel Dempsey not informed of the note on Aer Lingus? asks Political Editor Harry McGee.

TO SAY that this June 13 memo will have serious repercussions for the Government and for Transport Minister Noel Dempsey is the understatement of this relatively new millennium.

From the moment Aer Lingus unleashed a political firestorm by announcing that it was favouring Belfast over Shannon, the Government were caught on the hop.

In his first reaction, Mr Dempsey seems to have completely misinterpreted the mood of the public. Disappointed for Shannon, delighted for Belfast was the ‘you win some, you lose some’ refrain.

It was only when furious aviation workers, the business community, and politicians (including virtually every Fianna Fáil TD, senator and councillor in the mid-west) started to kick up an almighty fuss that the Government began to get exercised in any way.

But from the start, the core of its very defence was just that it was ‘caught on the hop’. Aer Lingus, it suggested, had presented the decision as a fait accompli; and there was nothing that the Government could do about this bolt out of the blue.

In the Dáil debate on Shannon on September 27, Mr Dempsey said: “At a short meeting with the chairman (John Sharman) and chief executive (Dermot Mannion) of Aer Lingus on the 3rd of August I was informed that they intended to open a hub in Belfast and to transfer the Shannon-Heathrow slots to that route.”

This suggests this was the first time he learned of the decision.

Nor can we ignore the celebrated comments of Minister Willie O’Dea: “Dermot Mannion can’t come along on a bank holiday Monday and turn into a latterday Oliver Cromwell.”

But the explosive Note for the Minister’s Information released to the Irish Examiner under the FOI Act demolishes that spin.

The first thing that should be noted is that it’s a note to the minister. That’s Noel Dempsey, who said he first learned about the decision on August 3. But this note is dated June 13, some seven weeks earlier.

Sure June 13 is the day before he was appointed to Transport. But he should have nevertheless received this note (soon after his appointment).

It doesn’t mince its words.

It states baldly that Shannon is on the cusp of losing its Heathrow slots.

No reading of the note would suggest anything other than the airline is close to a decision favouring Belfast.

It goes on to clearly spell out that this would lead to a cessation of the Shannon to Heathrow service.

Politically, Noel Dempsey and the Government were correctly criticised for underestimating the depth of feeling over Shannon and for doing too little too late. But part of its defence was predicated on not learning about the decision until after it was made.

If this Note for the Minister’s Information had been actually forwarded to Mr Dempsey, his first act as Transport Minister would have been to walk the political plank. And that is why department officials included an unprecedented “contextual note” with the FOI documents, explaining this June 13 note. They knew that if the note was read without explanation Mr Dempsey would be a goner.

And that contextual note explains that the note for the minister was drafted by a principal officer in the department, and passed on to an assistant secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the department.

But for a reason that has not been disclosed, the note “was not forwarded to the minister”.

This has echoes of the controversy about then Health Minister Micheál Martin’s degree of awareness concerning the legal basis of nursing home charges, and his disagreement with his most senior official that a note had been forwarded to him.

The fact that this note was not forwarded is baffling. The contextual note doesn’t explain why. And what is even more baffling is that the so-called contextual note (obviously written in the past few weeks) goes on to state that the assistant secretary, John Murphy, was fully aware of the serious nature of the Aer Lingus decision.

So concerned was he that on the day he received the note, he actually rang Dermot Mannion, the chief executive of Air Lingus.

“The assistant secretary conveyed the concerns of the department, from an aviation and regional development perspective, about the implications of a reduction in the Shannon-Heathrow service,” says the contextual note.

Well, the minister was not aware but civil servants at the highest level of his department were aware of the implications for Shannon from June but had neither informed Mr Dempsey about it then or later. Nor was any effort made during June or July to dissuade Aer Lingus from following a course that was clearly running against the spirit of the Government’s commitment to retain connectivity for Shannon.

It begs several serious questions. Why was the minister not informed? In his Dáil speech, Mr Dempsey said he was informed of the decision on August 3. Was he aware before then that establishing a hub at Belfast was being actively pursued by Aer Lingus and that it would entail the loss of Heathrow slots for Shannon?

When did he find out that his own department had been aware of the potential cessation of Heathrow services from Shannon since June 13? If he knew (even in August or September), why did he not inform the Dáil or the public about it?

Why were the implications for Shannon from a regional development and aviation perspective not referred to in the original note to the minister? Were the concerns Mr Murphy expressed to Mr Mannion reduced to writing?

Given the Government’s sharp retrospective criticism of Aer Lingus’s decision, why the inertia from Transport during June and July over a vitally important policy area. There was a break-down somewhere. And you suspect that heads will have to roll.

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