Tuesday, 26 May 2015
There has been extensive briefing of the media over the proposed sale of Aer Lingus to IAG. So extensive has the briefing been that one would be forgiven for believing the Government is teeing up the situation for a decision eventually to sell the airline. I understand it was discussed at Cabinet today and that there will be a further meeting later this evening - the Taoiseach may clarify that. He might indicate whether he has addressed the concerns of the Labour seven who he may remember at the time objected to the sale of the remaining 25.1% share in Aer Lingus. I believe at the time Labour's Deputy Costello described the offer as bargain basement and that the five-year guarantee was wholly inadequate. He made other very strong objections to the sale at the time.
We are opposed to the sale of Aer Lingus. We believe there are fundamental issues pertaining to connectivity and reduced competition if it goes ahead. Aer Lingus does not necessarily need to move into a larger company or to consolidate just to grow.
We know from Ryanair and EasyJet that small airlines can grow to extraordinary levels, with passenger numbers in Ryanair having grown from 11 million to 100 million in 14 plus years and in EasyJet to 60 million. There are options. The fundamental issue is connectivity with the regions, including Shannon and Cork airports, and the guaranteeing of slots which ultimately is the guarantor of connectivity. We know that if these airports lose connectivity, they will, essentially, be dealt a fatal blow. Perhaps the Taoiseach might tell the House if the Government has made a decision on the sale of its 25.1% shareholding in Aer Lingus; if he favours the sale of that shareholding to IAG and what guarantees he can give to the regions in terms of Heathrow Airport slots and ongoing long-term connectivity with the regions, particularly Shannon and Cork airports?
I expect the Government to make a decision this evening that will be in the best interests of the country. The Deputy will recall that some time ago, when an approach was made in respect of the possibility of the State selling its 25.1% shareholding in Aer Lingus, this was a matter that was not acceptable to the Government and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I made the point at the time that this matter could not be considered unless cast iron guarantees were given. The Minister has spoken publicly on many occasions about the issues involved, including regional connectivity, employment, the airports involved, both transatlantic and European routes, slot disposal, brand image and name of the airline, the potential for growth and so on. All of these major issues were raised by him. The Government heard a presentation from him this morning. We have not yet concluded our deliberations on the matter, but we expect to do so this evening. As I said, we expect any decision made to be made in the interests of the country.
I do not think that is satisfactory in the sense that the media have been briefed extensively on the matter and it has, essentially, been teed up for sale. The unions have also been briefed, as has the Labour Party. Deputy Michael McNamara has said he has ongoing concerns. It seems the last to be briefed is Dáil Éireann. I asked the Taoiseach a simple question. Is he in favour of the sale of the 25.1% shareholding? The answer I have received is that the Government will make a decision tonight in the best interests of the people, but that is no answer.
What is the Taoiseach's view? Does he believe it should be sold and will he tell the House if he will be recommending to the Cabinet this evening that it be sold? I disagree with him if that is his position. I would like to know what cast iron guarantees he can give to the regions in terms of connectivity. I have heard Senator Sean D. Barrett articulate very strong views on some of the key issues involved, including connectivity, consolidation and so on.
The Fianna Fáil spokesperson, Deputy Timmy Dooley, has been very consistent on this issue. We are not being briefed to the same degree as others. The media have been briefed and are stating this is going to be great, that it is a good deal and so on. The Labour Party has been briefed, but there has been no briefing of Dáil Éireann or the transport committee. I suggest to the Taoiseach that that is not good enough. What is his view?
I believe in making decisions in the best interests of the people and the country. As Deputy Micheál Martin is well aware from his own experience, it would be very wrong to comment here on a particular issue on which Government had not yet concluded its deliberations.
As I pointed out, when this matter came to prominence some months ago, the Government was not in a position to state it would be supportive, nor was the Minister. The issues outlined, in my view, included the giving of cast iron guarantees. A presentation was made to the Cabinet this morning based on the major issues to which I referred. Like any other issue, the Cabinet has not yet signed off on the matter. I am not in a position to give the final details-----
That is not acceptable. The Taoiseach has said he does not go around making comments when the Government has yet to make up its mind, but this is Leaders' Questions and he is being asked what his view is on this issue. A decision may be taken later this evening, which means that the Dáil will hear of the decision made through the media. What we have been hearing all day, in what are clearly orchestrated Government leaks, is the new commitments from IAG. It is obviously going out of its way to try to get the Government to sell off the State's stake and share in Aer Lingus. As far as I am aware, having listened to the media, the only concession - if one could call it such - available involves a stay of execution for the Heathrow Airport slots. Any assurance on this issue in terms of Irish access to routes from Heathrow Airport will only delay the inevitable loss of the slots. The company, if the Government sells off its stake in Aer Lingus, will sell off the slots some time in the future in favour of more profitable routes. That is the fig leaf the Government has been dangling in front of the people. The Taoiseach then comes into the House and refuses to give the Dáil his opinion on this issue.
Sinn Féin has been very consistent on the Aer Lingus issue. We opposed the original sell-off of this key strategic asset by a Fianna Fáil Government and will oppose any move by the Government to sell off the State's remaining 25.1% stakeholding. I have two questions for the Taoiseach. Was the issue of compulsory redundancies or outsourcing discussed at the Cabinet meeting this morning? The Taoiseach has said the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport brought a report to the Cabinet. Will he tell us what is the Minister's recommendation on this issue and, if not, why not?
As I said, the Government will continue to make decisions in the best interests of the country. This matter was discussed in the House on many occasions in the past few months. The issues raised are of great importance, including connectivity, growth, employment, REAs, the structure that will apply if a decision is made to dispose of the State's shareholding, slot disposal, the brand of Aer Lingus, the opportunities for further growth, both to Britain and beyond, including the United States, the importance of Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports in terms of their being the central airports in Ireland, the implications for Knock airport, from which Aer Lingus operates services, and services to Gatwick Airport. Account must also be taken of the potential for growth should such a sale take place. As I said previously, the Government will not tolerate any consideration of the disposal of the shareholding without particular and strong guarantees being secured in regard to the matters referred to. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport briefed the Cabinet this morning on a number of changes that had been presented since the matter was first discussed. The reason the decision has not yet been made is that the Cabinet has not yet concluded its deliberations.
I expect that will happen this evening. If that is so, I assume a statement will follow and that the matter will be discussed in the Dáil tomorrow, that is if the Government decides to conclude its deliberations on it this evening.
I asked the Taoiseach if the issues of compulsory redundancies or outsourcing were discussed at today's meeting, but he did not answer me. He comes out with the mantra that whatever decision the Government takes, it will be in the best interests of the country. That is the same excuse he used for giving billions of taxpayers' money to the bankers, for running down the health services and for all of the other terrible decisions he has taken.
We are a small island nation and our economy needs consistent and secure air access. The Government cannot jeopardise that by throwing away the links that Aer Lingus provides. Aer Lingus is vital to the economic future of Limerick, Belfast and Cork, as well as Dublin. The IAG proposes to do nothing to prevent the loss of an estimated 1,200 jobs, following any sell-up. I remind the Taoiseach that Iberia Airline shed 4,500 jobs after being taken over by IAG. I ask this question without any great hope of an answer, but will the Taoiseach confirm that any offers from the airline cannot guarantee long-term, into perpetuity, access for Irish routes from Heathrow? Does he accept therefore that the inevitable loss of connectivity will have severe social and economic repercussions? We should not have to read this in a press statement, so will he publish the full details of any proposals from IAG and will he commit to a Dáil debate on any Cabinet decision taken in respect of the future of Aer Lingus?
Please answer the question I asked about compulsory redundancies or outsourcing.
Aer Lingus has always made it clear that it uses direct labour where that is possible and as far as I can recall, there have been no compulsory redundancies in Aer Lingus. I pointed out that when the Cabinet was briefed this morning by the Minister, he referred to employment, to the REAs, to the question of compulsory redundancies and to all of the issues, such as employment, protection and growth of jobs, potential for employment of pilots, engineering and airline staff, connectivity, the issues raised by Deputy Martin, connectivity from Cork, Shannon and Dublin to Britain and Heathrow and to Gatwick in the case of Knock, connectivity to the United States and Europe, the opportunity that presents itself for serious growth and the changes that are being discussed in regard to the slots, their legality, their disposal, the brand image of the airline and the name of the airline. All of these matters were part of the briefing the Minister gave.
I have told Deputy Adams already that if the Government signs off on this evening on this decision, whatever decision it makes, all the details will be made public and we will have a normal full-scale debate in the House. This is a matter that should be discussed and the House should be able to comment on the decision made by the Government and the details of that. This is in everybody's interest. However, let me be clear on this. As I said to Deputy Martin, the Government will make its decision in the best interest of the people. That means analysing thoroughly all of the relevant issues. This is an important issue for Ireland as an island nation. We need greater connectivity to keep up our exports, our businesses and to support the huge numbers of people who will come to this country from many parts of the world in the time ahead.
When this process began, I made it perfectly clear on behalf of the Government that we could only consider it in the context of guarantees being given in respect of fundamentally important matters.
Last Friday, appropriately, was Harvey Milk Day, the day that would have been the birthday of the assassinated gay rights activist. His observation that "rights are won only by those who make their voices heard" was borne out with the count on Saturday, because it was those who made their voices heard who won the referendum. It was those LGBTQ campaigners who have fought and campaigned for equal rights over decades. It was those who spoke to friends and family and who spoke out publicly. It was those who wore badges to make their voices heard. It was those who campaigned door-to-door in the streets and on social media. It was the tens of thousands who came home to vote to demand a break from the oppression of the past. Together, these people made up a powerful social movement that has changed this country. At the forefront of that movement were young people and working class communities who turned out massively to vote "Yes".
The result is a massive step forward towards equality. The movement for change that has been unleashed will not stop now, but will continue. People will demand an end to all discrimination, to all homophobia and will call for full equality. They will demand that Ireland becomes a modern, progressive and secular society, where people's religious beliefs are respected, but where no church has control over the laws of the State or the provision of education, health care or social services.
The choice now for all political parties is how to react to the change that is happening. Will they be carried along with it or will they try to stand against and resist it? The traditional hiding place of the establishment, behind a supposedly conservative silent majority no longer exists. The choice now is clear and the Taoiseach has a choice to make about what the Government will do. Will he go along with the change? Will he remove the clause in the Employment Equality Act which allows schools or hospitals run by religious orders to discriminate against LGBTQ or atheist people? Will he end the ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood? Will he take on board all of the criticisms from the trans-community of the Gender Recognition Bill and ensure it is passed by both Houses before the summer break?
Finally, will the Taoiseach now hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, to end the barbaric situation where a woman who has chosen to terminate a crisis pregnancy - even in the tragic eventuality of fatal foetal abnormality - or a doctor or anybody else who helped her could be jailed for 14 years?
I thank Deputy Murphy for his comments. I was very happy to see the extent of the result of the referendum on Friday in respect of the equality of marriage. This was an extraordinary result, driven by the conviction, belief and enjoyment of so many new people involved in politics. It demonstrates the importance of politics, the power of the vote and the influence of people driven by a sense of belief and conviction for change. This is heartening and encouraging for the thousands of people of the gay community who now stand with equal status in terms of civil marriage with all other people in the country. This big message from a small country has now gone out worldwide.
There are changes being examined and considered in respect of the equality legislation in regard to the issues mentioned. With regard to the repeal of the eighth amendment of the Constitution, I do not believe this House should be rushed into a situation that is as sensitive and personal as elements of fatal foetal abnormalities and other issues. I know an Oireachtas committee is considering hearings in the late autumn in respect of this matter. The difference between this and the referendum is that in respect of the referendum on the equality of marriage, people were able to point out exactly what the consequences would be - that if the referendum was passed, this would be the situation that would apply in law. Believe me, from experience over many years, it is not possible to be as clear in respect of a concept of changing the eighth amendment of the Constitution.
For that reason, the excitement of change created by the vote of the people, and it was the Government that decided to put the referendum to the people by popular vote, is an entirely different matter. We are talking about an issue that is not as clear or as simple as it might sound. The referendum on marriage equality and rights for gay and lesbian people was about living, love, commitment and dedication. A repeal of the eighth amendment of the Constitution, empathising with the very many tragic stories I have heard, deals with other elements that are not clear at all. I will not be rushed into considering these matters because we had a referendum last weekend that was very positive. This requires the most careful consideration by whoever is elected to the House here in the next Administration.
Last Friday, and the result on Saturday, was a cry for social change, equality for LGBTQ people and an end to discrimination, but it was more than that. It was a cry for a different type of society. There is a sense that society has changed fundamentally and that social change has taken place. It was reflected in the referendum, and the referendum result is now an active factor in giving people confidence that more change can be won and that if people continue to mobilise we can create a very different type of society, and central to that is the question of the eighth amendment of the Constitution. It is incredible for a Government that has been in power four years to say that repeal of that amendment would represent a rushing of the process. Twenty thousand women have travelled for abortions in the course of this Government's term.
We know about the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. We know about the horrific case of Miss Y. It is quite simple. Repeal of the eighth amendment would remove a constitutional ban on abortion and allow a Government to legislate for abortion in whatever circumstances that Government considered. I am in favour of the full right of women to access abortion but, at the very least, the Government should commit to repeal the eighth amendment. It should not hide behind the need to have another election or use it to try to get votes in an election. The Government should commit now to having a referendum in the course of this Dáil term. We should have it. We will campaign and win a "Yes" vote, and we should then legislate for abortion rights in this country.
What Deputy Murphy forgets is that the people voted in a referendum and determined the wording in the Constitution. That wording was interpreted by the Supreme Court many years ago, and no Government in the intervening period did anything about that. This Government legislated for the protection of life during pregnancy in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill based on the Supreme Court's interpretation of what the people wanted inserted in the Constitution following the referendum. Believe me, Deputy Murphy, it is not a case of saying we should have another referendum next week. I will not do that, and there will not be a referendum on this issue in the lifetime of this Government. I am saying to the Deputy that this issue deserves the most serious consideration. I do not believe in abortion on demand but there are very sensitive stories in respect of-----
-----fatal foetal abnormalities and other issues. However, it is not a case of simply repealing the eighth amendment and that everybody will be happy afterwards. If we were to be rational about what we do in this House, there are great sensitivities that must be carefully considered and, therefore, there will not be a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment during the lifetime of this Administration.