Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
How can the Minister, Deputy Cowen, stand here and, apparently without a hint of embarrassment, justify the debacle the Government has created with the privatisation of the national airline? How does he have the audacity, the shamelessness to read a script that was probably prepared by Stock Exchange sharks in New York to cover or justify the massive incompetence of which this Government is guilty? If this privatisation was a success, why are the shares now being sold at €3.05 when the Government sold them for €2.20?
Not only is the Minister guilty of treachery in sabotaging the future of the national airline, but he is cheating the taxpayer by allowing the grubby international financiers to take the benefit of what has been created over decades by Irish workers and the Irish people. Why is he crying "foul" at Ryanair's attempt when he must have known from the beginning that the law of the Stock Exchange is that the shark with the biggest snout goes in for the kill, and so it has? Did his advisers tell him this was possible and if so, why did he not take pre-emptive action? We want a clear answer to that. If they did not, why were they paid tens of millions of euro?
Let us not make scapegoats. The Minister for Transport who presided over this disaster on behalf of the Government also presided over the situation where the Government sits on €60 million worth of useless electronic voting machines. Some computer users in Holland recently hacked into machines like these and played cartoons on them — how appropriate. They should be brought into the Cabinet room of the Irish Government because while its Members might be able to comprehend the intellectual abilities of Mickey Mouse, they are failing on everything else. This is a major fiasco, following on the fiasco that last week left 40,000 telephone subscribers of another privatised industry without a telephone service. Will Deputy Cowen throw the 3,500 workers around the stock exchanges of the world like a sack of spuds? Apart from squawking to international and national competition authorities, what will he do? I demand that he take Aer Lingus back into public ownership and answer the question why he reduced the stakeholding if he knew this attack was imminent.
Under State ownership Aer Lingus and other companies have suffered job losses, so maintaining State ownership is no guarantee of job security. This strategic plan by the board of Aer Lingus required the sale of shares so it could get access to private equity and leverage for the acquisition of planes and other equipment to develop a long-haul strategy, which can provide greater tourism numbers for Ireland and greater profits for Aer Lingus. That is why the part privatisation took place and the IPO was made. It was successful in its own right. The Opposition presumes that a successful takeover of Aer Lingus by Ryanair is imminent. That is not the position. In relation to the retention of strategic shareholding by the Government, we are in a position to protect the strategic concerns in the national interest in respect of Aer Lingus. We have not welcomed the proposed purchase by Ryanair of a majority stake. There are regulatory frameworks to deal with competition and other questions. There are many obstacles to be overcome before people can draw the conclusions that the Opposition is drawing. We have made a strategic decision that has been successfully completed in terms of the IPO. It is in line with the board's requirements to implement the strategic plan. It provides access to funds to which the airline would not otherwise have access, to develop and build the airline and to protect jobs. Without that investment strategy the future of Aer Lingus in terms of where it stands in the aviation market would be more precarious than would otherwise be the case. Those are the facts and no scaremongering by Deputy Joe Higgins will change them.
The Government lacks the vision and, more importantly, the commitment to public services, State ownership of an important industry, the thousands of workers, the tens of hundreds of people in the community who depend on the airline and the millions of passengers. This Government has contempt for State projects and for public service workers. Witness the Taoiseach's disgraceful blunderbuss attack on health workers yesterday. How do nurses feel this morning being put down and abused in that way? The Minister for Finance has also shown us contempt. He facilitated Fianna Fáil cronies to gain land rezoning around Dublin Airport to the great detriment of aviation possibilities and airport planning. Has he any idea of the trauma caused to Aer Lingus workers by this privatisation and the prospect of a man taking control who is not just arrogant, harsh and anti-trade union À la 1913, but has contempt for the workers? Whether he takes full control or not, the Minister has allowed a cuckoo into the Aer Lingus nest. That cuckoo will use whatever shareholding he has to drive bargains with the Government in the interest of Ryanair, to get conditions for the development of Dublin Airport and the Irish Aviation Authority to suit the profits of his shareholders. That is the only agenda. Whether or not he gains control, Deputy Cowen has allowed this situation to develop and is risking thousands of jobs, the communities that depend on them and the national airline when he could have chosen a different road. The Minister must not deny that he could have invested.
As Minister for Transport in a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in the early 1990s I facilitated investment. The investment helped us out of a crisis but did not provide the full remedy required. It was a one-off State investment and was approved at the time by the European Commission and Commissioner van Miert on that basis. I am aware of the rational investor principle but the issue in question is the extent to which the Government can gain access to funds of the magnitude required by Aer Lingus without putting in jeopardy its many other commitments in respect of investment in health, education and many other areas——
——and whether the commercial principles that apply have brought about the level of investment required and will enable leveraging by the board for further investment in the interests of pursuing further development plans. That was the obvious, common-sense approach and it had broad support in the House, despite the fact that not too many people were discussing it. The approach to which I refer also had the broad support of many members of the workforce because it dealt with legacy issues relating to pensions and other matters which would not otherwise have been dealt with had this approach not been adopted. Let us be clear about what has been dealt with and what are the benefits that have arisen.
The Deputy's conspiracy theories about the Government's view on the Irish aviation industry are as off the beam as his theories regarding what I did when I served as Minister for Transport. I dealt with those matters in full before the tribunal and answered all questions. I am confident that the outcome will be far different from that suggested by the Deputy in his conspiracy theory.
The fact that the Deputy was, with the exception of one other person, alone on this matter when it went before Dublin County Council at the time and was supported by all parties says more about his isolation than mine.