FOLLOWING two days of sterile debate, nobody should be surprised when the Dáil votes today to sell off the Government’s 25% stake in Aer Lingus to the British airline investment group IAG. Sterile because this crucial debate began nearly nine years ago when the other 75%was sold by the previous Fianna Fáil administration in October 2006.
Perhaps that’s why yesterday’s wrangling over the brief time allowed to discuss this major issue was so bitter.
Yet, it has to be said Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin had a fair point when he accused the Taoiseach of treating the Dáil with contempt.
After months of behind the scenes preparation, keeping both opposition and public in the dark, the Coalition was ramming the sale through the House, he claimed.
Meanwhile, IAG boss Willie Walsh was busy talking up the deal. Claiming that because Aer Lingus is small it is vulnerable, he promised that the “iconic brand” would flourish, opening up four new routes to American destinations.
It was, he said, a good deal for Aer Lingus, for AIG and for Ireland as the major beneficiary.
However, his assurance that people have nothing to fear will hardly assuage the doubts of trade unionists who are unlikely to be convinced by the claim that in cutting 2,500 jobs when he took over as chief executive of Aer Lingus, he was effectively saving jobs.
But what the workers now want to know is whether their jobs are secure.
A former Aer Lingus pilot himself, Mr Walsh knows only too well that the airline has a record of industrial strife, especially in recent times when thousands of passengers were grounded by strike action over changes in the workplace.
Basically, those who object to this sale believe the elephant in the room is the twin spectre of compulsory redundancy and the outsourcing of work currently carried out by existing staff.
They fear he has given no guarantee that jobs will not be lost over and above the 50 or more redundancies already flagged.
They also argue that the airline is highly profitable with healthy cash reserves; that its sale is part of Fine Gael’s privatisation ideology.
Furthermore, they argue it makes no sense for an island nation to sell a highly profitable airline.
Understandably, given the vagueness of assurances on continuing employment, it will be hard to dispel the fears of workers who have contributed significantly to the company’s return to profitability.
Fearful of compulsory redundancies, they can hardly look for comfort to Ryanair, which holds nearly 30% of Aer Lingus shares.
Thwarted by the EU in its own takeover bid, it is keen to get its money back.
With 600 “potential” jobs on the table and despite opposition claims that this sale will be bad for both the country and the employees, there is no point denying the importance of the seven-year guarantee for the valuable Aer Lingus slots at Heathrow.
With a handsome windfall in the exchequer coffers, once Ireland gains EU approval for the takeover deal and if the Aer Lingus marriage to IAG works out, the connectivity with Britain should copperfasten the future of Cork, Dublin and Shannon airports.
As Willie Walsh says: “It will make Ireland a better place to do business.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved