1 July 2004 Edition

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Aer Rianta fudge won't fly

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

Outgoing Aer Rianta chief Noel Hanlon hired a helicopter to get to Shannon in time to meet George Bush

Outgoing Aer Rianta chief Noel Hanlon hired a helicopter to get to Shannon in time to meet George Bush

Harney halts union recognition at new airport terminal

What is the future facing Aer Rianta this week? Will it be privatised, will it be kept as one entity, will the airports be broken up, when will they break up? Will workers retain pay and working conditions? What about the proposed new terminal in Dublin Airport?

The answer to all of these questions is a clear yes, no and maybe. Confusion reigns and in an economy dependent on its ability to import and export efficiently and competitively, one of our vital national resources is without any clear vision or leadership.

Sinn Féin's Sean Crowe told Leinster House last week that there is an urgent need for a White Paper on Aviation Policy in Ireland to produce the vital long-term strategic plan needed for our airports, airlines and all the ancillary service industries with jobs on the line in this sector.

His calls fell on deaf ears as government infighting, vested interests and union capitulation led to two weeks of conflict and confusion, with still no clear path for Aer Rianta

Aer Rianta - What really happened?

Wednesday 16 June: Unions and government negotiate an agreement on Aer Rianta. Legislation would establish Cork and Shannon as separate companies from Dublin and Shannon but with no assets and no staff.

The new boards at Cork and Shannon would produce business plans before June 2005. With government approval, more legislation would be introduced to complete the Aer Rianta break up, but with no privatisation of the three companies.

18 June: The previous day's agreement begins to fall apart after an intervention by Mary Harney, Progressive Democrats minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Harney objected to the 12-month business plan preparation time. This would now be cut to nine months. More crucial was Harney's demand that the government delete a clause guaranteeing that workers' pay, conditions and work practices at Dublin airport would be extended to any new independent terminal. Harney was ensuring that whoever runs the new terminal at Dublin airport will not have to recognise trade unions.

19 June: Unions accept the Harney deletions and agree the 5.5% wage increase for the next 18 months of the Sustaining Progress deal.

Mary Harney affirms her support for the new terminal, telling journalists that "we've reached agreement on a way forward in relation to that" and also declaring that union representation in the new terminal was not a matter for the government. "The government doesn't legislate for union membership."

21 June: The current board of Aer Rianta submit their own ten-year plan to the coalition government. The submission was driven by chairperson Noel Hanlon, whose term of office runs out in September.

The 180-page report proposes 281 redundancies at Shannon airport, while also showing that neither Cork or Shannon airports would be viable for the next five years or more. Previous leaks of the report said that more than €1.2 billion would be needed to upgrade the three airports, €75 million in Shannon, €200 million in Cork and €1 billion in Dublin.

The ten-year plan was prepared by senior managers at Aer Rianta with consultants from IBI Corporate Finance.

22 June: Transport minister Seamus Brennan publishes his State Airports Bill, to substantial criticism from all opposition parties and unions. Brennan announces also that he wants to have the bill passed through all stages of Leinster House within a week.

SIPTU President Jack O'Connor describes the bill as "ideologically driven and ill-conceived, for which no business case has been made and which has not withstood any degree of objective analysis".

But this was the bill, whose terms had been agreed at the previous week's all-night partnership talks. Surely it would have union support? O'Connor said: "We hope it contains the commitments extracted by the trade unions during talks with the Government last week."

It is clear now that there are two interpretations of what had been agreed the previous week - that of the unions and that of Mary Harney.

Also of note was that the new bill gives Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy a veto over the break up of Aer Rianta. It is he, rather than Brennan, who has to be satisfied that the business plans of Cork and Shannon would make sense to break up the company.

Fianna Fáil Seanad leader Mary O'Rourke reveals that a lengthy letter written to her about Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary had left her "speechless".

23 June: The soon to be retired Noel Hanlon describes the new bill as draconian and reveals that the current board of Aer Rianta was never consulted about the legislation, which, if passed, could stand down the current board at any time transferring its assets to a new Dublin Airport Authority.

Following her previous day's cryptic disclosure about information received concerning Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, Mary O'Rourke, a former public enterprise minister, asks all individuals and parties involved in the government's aviation policy to "re-declare" any funding from Ryanair or its chief executive, Michael O'Leary.

O'Rourke focuses not just on the break up of Aer Rianta but also includes her scope to cover "any decision to allow a second terminal at Dublin Airport". According to O'Rourke, this would ensure transparency in the current "melee" over aviation policy.

The Progressive Democrats had received a €63,000 donation in 2001 from Ryanair - in subsequent years the monetary amounts of donations from the PDs to Ryanair fell in line with new legislative limits on corporate donations.

Mary Harney, responding to queries from the opposition about the rushed Airports Bill and union opposition to it, declares: "I do not know how any misunderstanding could have arisen in the part of the trade unions... I was party to those talks until 5am on Friday, and no one could have been in any doubt as to the government's legislative plans."

24 June: Leinster House begins the debate on the Aer Rianta bill. Just four days after the Aer Rianta board had effectively ignored the coalition's break up plan and produced their own ten-year one, Seamus Brennan tells us that the legislation he is proposing emerged from extensive interaction between himself, the company and its advisers. So who are we to believe?

Sinn Féin's Seán Crowe says that in reality what we had was a lot of stress for workers and we are in the ironic position of depending on Charlie McCreevy to show some sense and reject the business plans coming to him next year.

Sinn Féin's Aengus Ó Snodaigh points out that "since taking over his ministerial position, Minister Brennan has run with a right-wing economic agenda with scant regard for the best interests of employees, trade unionists and the people".

25 June: Aer Rianta chairperson Noel Hanlon hires a private helicopter to fly to Shannon to welcome George Bush as he steps down from Airforce One.

29 June: At a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen tells TDs that the cabinet will now consider putting off the final passing of the Aer Rianta legislation until the autumn, despite the wishes of Transport Minister Brennan to have the bill passed in a week. Fianna Fáil's transport policy group had asked that the legislation be postponed.


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