Clodagh Finn: We must stand with those who take on corporate ‘untouchables’

Most of us will never be forced into a situation where we have to take on big corporations like Corkwoman Naoise Ryan, but that does not mean that we cannot make a stand.
Clodagh Finn: We must stand with those who take on corporate ‘untouchables’

Naoise Ryan with a photo of her late husband Mick. Since March 2019, she has been pressing Boeing to answer questions on the fatal — and avoidable — air crash that killed her husband.
Picture: Jonathan Tyner

We are not short of fearless campaigners in Ireland. Vicky Phelan is one, the CervicalCheck campaigner who travelled to America this week for cancer treatment which she hopes will prolong her life.

Poet Rye Aker sent her on her way with a new poem ‘Vicky In The Flat’, telling her that everyone in Ireland will be her virtual flatmate during her stay. 

It starts: “The new girl moved in next door. From Ireland. And four million Irish flatmates with her, with their arragh go on at the end of each day. Asking her ‘what’s the craic’?” 

It’s a wonderful tribute and, I think it fair to say that the whole country will be cheering for this woman who, in the words of the poet, “stood up for the nation that had harmed her and many others”.

Corkwoman Naoise Ryan’s campaign is of a different order, yet it too deserves the backing of the nation and, indeed, a poem. All I can offer, however, is the hard prose of a newspaper column to highlight her ongoing fight to bring to account a global corporation that knowingly allowed unsafe planes to fly.

Since March 2019, she has been pressing Boeing to answer questions on the fatal — and avoidable — air crash that killed her husband, Irish Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year Mick Ryan, along with 156 others.

Just five months earlier, 189 people died when a Boeing 737 Max crashed minutes after take-off, yet the company continued to fly the plane.

Last Thursday, Boeing was fined more than $2.5bn for deceiving regulators about the safety of a flight control system implicated in both crashes. Boeing employees chose “the path of profit over candour”, concealed important information and then later covered up that deception, the US Justice Department said.

Damning findings and ones that echo earlier reports which found a “culture of concealment” at the heart of the aircraft-manufacturing giant once hailed as a beacon of American engineering.

A $2.5bn fine is loose change to a company that generated $100bn in revenue and $12bn in profits in 2018. It is true, of course, that the scandal has cost the company much more, in settlements, lost orders, and reputational damage. 

The coronavirus has also had a devastating impact on aviation, but the impact on the families of the victims can hardly be measured in monetary terms.

Naoise Ryan says those responsible should be held criminally liable for their actions and charged with manslaughter. “They knew this plane was defective and there would be further crashes and loss of life,” she said. In essence, she adds, Boeing was playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.

She is not alone in thinking that. US congressman Peter DeFazio said last week’s fine was little more than “a slap on the wrist” and an insult to the victims.

“The settlement sidesteps any real accountability in terms of criminal charges,” he said. "From where I sit, this attempt to change corporate behaviour is pathetic … Senior management and the Boeing board were not held to account."

The fine certainly won’t do that. Indeed, only 10% of the $2.5bn settlement agreed last week is actually a fine which will be paid to the US government. Most of the settlement (70%) is compensation to Boeing’s airline customers, while $500m has been set aside to compensate the families of the 346 people killed.

When you do the division, that $500m translates into about $1.4m per victim. Let’s recall, at this point, that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, fired in the aftermath of the Boeing Max, left with a $60m+ handshake.

Those figures tell a familiar story — that global corporations are almost untouchable in a world that puts big business at its core. Boeing will avoid criminal prosecution if it pays its fines and meets a series of requirements.

That outcome was not surprising given that outgoing US president Donald Trump repeatedly stressed Boeing’s importance to the US economy. Even under a Biden presidency, you have to wonder if a US administration would tackle a homegrown manufacturer that provides tens of thousands of jobs.

Given the odds stacked against her, it makes Naoise Ryan’s campaign to hold Boeing to account all the more remarkable. But she is not going to give up and, through her lawyers, is continuing to press for the release of documents relating to the crash.

She has spent months reading reports and consulting aviation experts to inform a submission which she lodged last month with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) calling for the Max to be certified as a new plane. That way, the safety of the plane as a whole would be rigorously tested rather than just its constituent parts, she says.

The Boeing Max, now called the Max-8200, has already returned to service in some parts of the world. Irish airline Ryanair has signed up to buy 75 models, with plans to buy 135 more in a $22bn deal. It is awaiting the final go-ahead, due later this month, from the EASA.

Meanwhile, Naoise Ryan, herself a civil engineer, will continue to raise questions not just about aviation safety, but about a model of business that has been shown to put “profit before candour”.

When Mick Ryan, deputy global engineer of the World Food Programme, was posthumously named Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year last month, she gave a deeply moving speech about his life-saving and life-changing work in some of the most dangerous countries in the world.

It highlighted a balancing act that is, in a sense, being played out all around the pandemic-stricken world as governments and their people try to pit the demands of the economy against the need to protect public health.

But, as Naoise Ryan starkly asks, when it comes to safety, which side do you want to be on — the one that puts people at its core, or the one that favours profit?

Her husband, she said, was firmly on the side of people. 

“He fought to protect lives," she said. 

Safety was his priority, and every life mattered. This should not just be a goal for humanitarians, it should be a goal for all humanity.

While most of us will never be forced into a situation where we have to take on big corporations or government, that does not mean that we cannot make a stand.

As Naoise Ryan put it: “Through the choices we make we can decide to support or to not support those that gamble with people’s lives; those that put profit, greed, or power above human life. 

"We can decide to support airlines that prioritise our safety above profit. We can buy goods that are ethically and sustainably sourced. It does make a difference. We can make a difference.” 

Come to think of it, there is already a poem that describes Naoise Ryan’s campaign which, incidentally, continues in lockdown and with two small children. It is attributed to Edward Everett Hale and it reads: 

I am only one, but still I am one. 

I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;

And because I cannot do everything, 

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

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