27 September 2001 Edition

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``Don't privatise Aer Lingus'' - Ó Caoláin

Top Department official favours sell-off of national airline

If the company is to survive and thrive it must be developed with imagination. That needs real commitment to Aer Lingus from the Dublin government
A packed meeting of delegates representing workers throughout Aer Lingus expressed strong opposition to any plans to privatise the national airline and called for immediate state assistance in the current aviation crisis. Among those addressing the seminar in Liberty Hall on Tuesday was Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who pledged his party's commitment to retaining Aer Lingus as a state-owned company and slammed the government's mismanagement and lack of real commitment to the company and its workers.

All the political parties, with the exception of the PDs, were represented at the meeting. Wednesday's Irish Times reported that all the parties supported a ``three to four year moratorium on any proposal coming from government to privatise Aer Lingus'', but Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin made clear at the meeting his opposition to privatisation at any time in the future. He pointed out that, unlike several other speakers, he had not used the words ``at this stage''.

A very revealing insight into thinking within the government and civil service was given by John Lumsden, Assistant General Secretary of the Department of Public Enterprise. He said that he was in favour of privatisation. While he said it was a personal view, the significance of this coming from the senior man in the Department responsible for Aer Lingus was not lost on the meeting.

Addressing the 200 SIPTU delegates, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:

``I am conscious that hundreds of Aer Lingus workers are again looking with trepidation at what the future may hold. It is your lives that are most directly affected by the current difficulties of the company. Hundreds of redundancies have been signalled, with possibly more to come out of Thursday's board meeting. Your first priority, therefore, must be to defend jobs and I am with you 100% on that.

``We in Sinn Féin are strongly in favour of Aer Lingus remaining in State ownership. This company has been built up over decades to become one of the keystones of the Irish economy, a company which has earned international respect for itself and for Ireland. Aer Lingus was founded at a time when the private sector in Ireland had neither the will nor the capacity to build such a vital strategic infrastructure. It was built up in difficult times and when it prospered it repaid the investment. It is our company and it should remain our company.

``For some time now there has been a drive to privatize Aer Lingus, to sell off this national asset, by one means or another.

``I believe this drive to privatisation is not motivated by any real concern for the future of the company, or its workers, or its place in the Irish economy. It is an ideologically driven opposition to public ownership of any kind. It is designed to benefit not the workers of Aer Lingus or its owners - the Irish public - but the privileged few who would profit from privatisation.

``There is no doubt about the very difficult situation in which Aer Lingus now finds itself. It had a very profitable year in 2000 with a 6% rise in overall passenger figures on the previous year and a projected £30 million profit. By June of this year that projection had become a projected £20 million loss. The foot and mouth crisis and the downturn in the US economy and the technology sector combined to hit the transatlantic trade. Obviously the attacks in the US are now having a huge impact which will probably continue for some time.

``In this crisis I believe the government should make state aid available to the airline without delay. Such aid was provided after the Gulf War but the government allowed its hands to be tied by the EU. It accepted the dictation of the EU that no such state aid could be given again in the future. That was reiterated by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy after the EU Finance Ministers' meeting on Sunday. I believe it is fundamentally undemocratic for any government to limit its options or that of a future government, which may decide to provide whatever aid it deems appropriate to any state company. This is a basic democratic question and one which now has very direct relevance to Aer Lingus. It is ironic that in the US, the ultimate competitive economy with no state enterprise, substantial aid is being provided to airlines.

``There is a danger that those who wish to see Aer Lingus privatised will use the current crisis to further their agenda. That could mean the break-up of the company, the loss of thousands of jobs and the destruction of a strategic pillar of the Irish economy. The airline industry here could quickly become dominated by yellow-pack companies, with the same anti-trade union policies as Michael O'Leary's Ryanair. Instead of being a gateway to Europe and a bridge to North America, this country could become a backwater in aviation. It must not be allowed to happen.

``Breaking up Aer Lingus as a result of the current crisis would be short-termism of the worst kind. We have seen how well the company fared in recent years and the benefits for the Irish economy. Tougher times are here but they will not last forever. We need to look beyond the current crisis and go forward with a strategic view of the future.

``Of course simply retaining Aer Lingus in state hands will not be enough. If the company is to survive and thrive it must be developed with imagination. That needs real commitment to the company from the Irish government. The current government has not shown that commitment. It is torn between the privatisation agenda of Ministers Harney and McCreevy and the fear of the political consequences of privatization on the part of Fianna Fáil. There is no vision for the future.

``Such a vision is needed more than ever. There must be a recognition that the greatest asset of Aer Lingus is the skilled workforce. They must be central to decision-making for the future. Their rights and interests must be safeguarded. And it must be realised that it is in the interest of all of us for this to remain our company, and for Aer Lingus to be developed and expanded as the national airline of the Irish people.''

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