Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I move:

“That Seanad Éireann: acknowledges that: - the Shannon Group supports over 46,000 jobs and contributes €1.1 billion in tax revenue to the exchequer;

- the importance of the Shannon Group to the Midwest region to maintain jobs and to continue economic development of the region, as well as to the national economy;

- the need to ensure the continued survival of international air travel from the Midwest region;

- that regional balanced economic development must be central to Government planning;

and calls on the Government to:

- commit fully to the survival and development of the Shannon Group and maintain its many international travel routes; and

- commit to the re-integration of Shannon Group under the remit of State control within the DAA in order to ensure collective leverage is attained in order to secure vital routes to London Heathrow and the East Coast of the United States of America"

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. It is nice to see the Minister of State back again and she is very welcome. It is important to start by acknowledging that the whole aviation sector is in deep crisis as a result of Covid-19. Indeed it is a topic that has been regularly and rightly raised from every side of this House. It is essential that the Government responds to ensure that connectivity, so crucial to this island nation, is protected as far as possible now and also for the post Covid-19 future. Since the onset of this pandemic Sinn Féin has been advocating for testing facilities to be installed in our ports of entry, and additional measures to be introduced such as temperature screening of arriving passengers. Unfortunately, neither has been put in place to date by the Government.

At the beginning of June, speaking at the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee, our spokesperson on transport, Deputy Darren O’Rourke, floated the idea of Ireland developing a traffic light system for international travel. Regrettably, the Government did not proceed down this avenue and instead introduced a green list system which did not help the aviation sector and was mired in mixed messaging from the get go. As the House is aware, there are now moves towards a standardised approach across the EU but at the Committee on Transport and Communications Networks last week we again highlighted that due to Government inaction on testing in our airports, we may not be able to fully participate in this new system.

We are very anxious to see the Government respond very positively not just to the new EU system but to ensure that we have adequate testing facilities ready to roll as soon as that system, hopefully, is ready in the coming week or so. We will continue to press the Government on these issues in a constructive manner.

This motion, as the Minister of State is aware, is specific to Shannon Airport but I also want to give a nod to Cork Airport before I get into the meat of this motion.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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What about Ireland West Airport Knock?

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Senator makes a fair point----

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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What about all of the airports that are not listed?

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The fact of the matter is that all of the airports outside of Dublin have great challenges right now. The current model, and this is something we have alluded to in the past, of competing airports is fundamentally flawed. In that respect I welcome the additional funding in yesterday’s budget both for Shannon and Cork airports which is a positive measure and needs to be acknowledged. The problem, as the manager of Cork Airport said yesterday, is that it is just a start. Much more is needed.

We then have the issue of Shannon Airport itself. My relationship with Shannon goes back to 1983 when I went to NIHE, as it was then, in Limerick. I am fairly certain that every year since 1987 I have flown in and out of that airport. I know it very well and like so many others of my middle age, I can see the changes over the years and how it has fallen back quite drastically from the times when we had approximately 3.6 million passengers at its peak. The last few months have definitely been the most challenging for Shannon Airport.Here is the point. The Covid crisis is absolutely awful but there was a crisis in Shannon Airport long before it. I want to talk about the people who have not been heard in the debate to date and these are the employees. Over the past week, I have spoken to employees and their union representatives. The story they tell me is one of having lost confidence in the management of Shannon Group. There is no other way to put it. They have lost confidence and have suffered. We have had 55 job losses to date, on top of 14 other people laid off and 70 people put on shorter time. They have been on short time for six months or more at this point. Then, in September, the few remaining full-time staff had a 20% pay cut imposed on them. Something that is quite challenging, that I did not realise until I investigated this, is that since separation a differential of 15% arose between the pay of Cork Airport workers and Shannon Airport workers. On top of this, there is now a further 20% cut. There is now a differential of between 30% and 35% for a worker doing the same job in Shannon Airport as in Cork Airport. This in itself shows the depth of the crisis people are enduring.

I hear stories of people who had to apply for a break from their mortgage and then apply for an extension to that break and a further extension. They understand they have to make sacrifices because we are in this huge crisis but they do not see Shannon Airport as it is currently constituted being able to pull itself out of the crisis without a fundamental change. This change has to be about the thing some of us have been reluctant to speak about at times. In fairness, others have not been reluctant. It is the mistake that was made in 2013 in separating Shannon Airport from Dublin Airport and Cork Airport. Sinn Féin has always been consistent in this regard. There was a narrative, and the Minister of State referred to it when she was here a couple of weeks ago, that everyone was in favour of it at the time. In fairness, that was not the case. We have been consistently against it. Since 2013, the three unions involved, SIPTU Fórsa and Connect, have been saying it was a huge mistake.

I acknowledge Senator Dooley who expressed his own concerns at the time. Only two weeks ago, he said that even before the pandemic the vast bulk of international aviation was going through Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport was not even keeping pace with the growth in tourism and was on the back foot anyway. He is absolutely right about that. My good colleague and friend, Senator Conway, said he could not see how Shannon Airport could compete against Dublin Airport as an independent entity and that there could have been a sensible realignment of the airport's position within the DAA group. This is exactly what should have happened but it did not happen.

At the end of the day, we have to look at the facts. It is particularly useful to compare Cork Airport with Shannon Airport. A decade ago, Cork Airport had 100,000 passengers per year more than Shannon Airport. As of last year, it had 900,000 more passengers. It is an airport not without its challenges, as I am sure my colleague, Senator Buttimer, will allude to but it had streaked ahead and was the fastest growing airport in the country within an integrated network. At the same time, we had Shannon Airport having to compete with Dublin Airport and Cork Airport and, frankly, not being able to do so. Its performance in the past four years in particular has been very poor.

The best way to demonstrate how ludicrous a decision it was to separate Shannon Airport from Cork Airport and Dublin Airport is to ask the Minister of State, who is from Galway if I am not mistaken, how she would feel about us proposing to separate Galway railway station and set it up as an independent company so it can compete against the rest of the CIÉ group and the Irish Rail group and run its own trains? We would all agree it would be a non-runner. This is the equivalent of what has happened here with Shannon Airport. It was a tragic mistake.

I know it is difficult because that mistake was made by Deputy Leo Varadkar, which makes life a little bit difficult, but he got it wrong. It sets up Shannon Airport as a direct competitor against the monolith that is Dublin Airport and the results have been stark for all to see. When we speak to workers in the airport they will tell us consistently that separation has been a failure. In years of massive growth in aviation traffic, Shannon Airport has not only been dwarfed by Dublin Airport but has been consistently outperformed by Cork Airport which, as I said, remained within the structures of the DAA.

Another example of how ludicrous it is to pit one airport against another can be seen in what happened to the DAA shared services business, which was based in Shannon. It contributed €400,000 a year in rent to Shannon Group. In 2017, after separation, the DAA management in Dublin moved the company out of Shannon to a private landlord in Limerick instead. We had one State company actively trying to undo another because the DAA was set up as a competitor to Shannon Airport. It did not see any point in contributing any income to a competitor in Shannon. It did not want to be subsidising a competitor so it moved its business. I hope everyone here can see how ludicrous a decision that was.

Until this year, as we know, business was booming in Dublin Airport, so much so that it was beginning to run out of room to fit all of the airlines that wanted to fly out of Dublin. I have this from a very good source. It would have made sound sense from a policy point of view for Dublin Airport to distribute some of the business, particularly transatlantic business, to Shannon Airport but it was impossible because Shannon Airport was now a competitor. Here we get to the nub of the issue. The current structures do not work for Shannon Airport or the west of Ireland in general. In a competition between the east and the west we know who will win.

We have to tackle this issue. It is important to recognise the broad nature of people throughout politics in the mid-west who have declared that the separation has been a failure. Yes, Sinn Féin has been leading on this but there are important voices in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who have alluded to the very same thing. Let me be clear. Sinn Féin is not calling for Shannon Airport to be passed by Dublin Airport. We are calling for a new policy that integrates Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and Dublin Airport into one shared national airport authority that has a clear direction from the Government to achieve regional balance. The only way this regional balance can be achieved is to work in an integrated way. If airports are competing against each other how can it possibly work? It would take in airports such as Ireland West Airport Knock, Donegal Airport and Kerry Airport. This is the only way we can achieve regional balance. The idea that they would compete against each other is crazy. On an island the size of the one we have it makes no sense. We need an authority that would have leverage over airlines with joined up thinking that could insist if airlines want to come into Dublin Airport, which is where they all want to go and let us make no bones about it, they must also come into Shannon Airport and Cork Airport. This is the only model that will be sustainable in the long term for Shannon Airport.

Now is the opportune time to act on this. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, gave us as an excuse for not taking action that it would take too long. This is what he said in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago. I have to recall that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, as part of a previous Government, was able to bail out the banks to the tune of €64 billion in a matter of hours so I really do not buy that line. What is lacking is political will. If it does take time then all the more reason to start now. After all, most airports predict it will take two to three years to get back to previous business levels.

The review is under way. The power of the motion is that all of us can unite to send a clear message to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, that the status quocannot hold and we need to reintegrate Shannon Airport into a new national airport authority that ensures regional balance and the long-term future for Shannon Airport, Limerick, the mid-west and the 46,000 jobs. Shannon Airport is an international brand. It is something of which we have all been very proud for decades but it has never been so low. It will not fix itself. Funding it from time to time with emergency funding is welcome but it will not fix it. The fundamental model is broken. We need fresh thinking and new thinking. I call on all Senators to back the motion and back a secure future for Shannon Airport.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Gavan for a very thought-provoking contribution.

Photo of Elisha McCallionElisha McCallion (Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleague for bringing forward the motion to the House. For us, the motion is not solely about Shannon Airport. It is not even only about Limerick or, indeed, the mid-west region or the west of Ireland. It is about a policy to create prosperity for all of the regions throughout the entire island. The motion is about planning so the entire island develops economically with a long-term strategy of balance rather than what we have had, which is short-term and shortsighted imbalance. If Shannon Airport fails and continues down the path of relegation from an international airport to a regional airport the implications go far beyond the mid-west. Shannon Airport has long been a beacon for the west and an alternative to Dublin Airport for long haul and short haul destinations.This motion is a mark of intent for a balanced island economy, not an economy solely based in the capital which does not in itself have sufficient housing and transport infrastructure. We have a capital city currently surviving more and more with workers who depend on long commutes and with infrastructure creaking at the edges. As with any island nation, transport links by both sea and air are key to the economic lifeblood of our island. However, our economic links to the world have been developed through blurred lenses for far too many generations. Brexit has given us the opportunity to look at this island and we have been forced to diversify our trade and develop an economic strategy with a broader vision. An island nation must plan infrastructure looking out to the world of trade but the whole island nation must look outward in a balanced regional development.

It is long past time for an all-Ireland transport strategy. In the past, our transport links have been used to haemorrhage people from our nation in a one-way trade with very little coming back in return. We now have a chance to grasp an opportunity to see balanced economic growth and prosperity not just in this area but in all the regions of the island. Balanced regional development in County Kerry, County Derry, County Limerick or County Longford will have the potential for people to find a job where they live and find a home they can afford in the places they like to call home. This gives greater quality of life, family life, climate benefits, community benefits and health benefits for all. Generation after generation of infrastructural planning has closed the door on regional development and treated Dublin not only as the capital of Ireland but as Ireland itself, with all policies and people focused on Dublin.

Five counties on this island have no rail link. Others, such as counties Derry and Meath, have very limited rail connections. The western rail corridor and a high speed train from Cork to Derry are projects that could show enormous advantages. They would help to spread economic activity, relieving Dublin while helping the rest of the island. Infrastructural policy is the foundation for wider economic policy and the societal change and need we must see in the future. Renewable energy, tourism, housing, manufacturing and agricultural changes will all be reliant on what transport policies we adopt now. This is true for both indigenous and international travel. Aviation policy has been shown to be a driver of economic success throughout the years. A report by the Northern and Western Regional Assembly has found that these two regions are lagging well behind other parts of the country across a range of sectors, including health, education, infrastructure and transport. A report by Limerick Chamber of Commerce finds that the establishment of a post-Brexit hub access from Shannon Airport to Frankfurt Airport could add an additional €412 million in GDP to the mid-west region. How can this Government hope for any economic development in the regions if a major and established transport hub is allowed to die, as we are seeing happen with Shannon?

Economic recovery has never been balanced across this country. Dublin and, to a lesser extent, the wider eastern and midlands area have recently experienced an over-concentration of population and jobs. As an island nation with a small, local economy, aviation plays a fundamental role in connecting Ireland to the global economy. The ability of firms located in Ireland to do business internationally and the attractiveness of Ireland for foreign direct investment, FDI, labour and tourism depend on aviation. Air links to hubs in the US and Europe are critical for regional development and necessary if the Government's ambition to drive 75% of growth outside the capital by 2040 are to be realised. A recent survey of 16 FDI announcements in the mid-west in 2016 found that each company involved cited Shannon Airport as a factor in its investment location decision.

Planning, investment and long-term infrastructural strategy are even more vital post-Brexit. Economically we need to do something so we have a generation which is not failed by our policies as the generations before were. Government does not need to turn plans going out for many decades. It can start a balanced regional development plan to sustain jobs and see economic growth by accepting this motion. We need coherent, integrated thinking in our transport infrastructure across the island. Linking our regional airports to improve transport infrastructure such as rail is absolutely essential. Supporting this Sinn Féin motion will have near-term benefits in saving jobs but this is fundamentally about the long-term benefits for the entire island. A balanced regional economy gives workers a balanced life, greater community spirit and better amenities. This is about planning and building for the future now. We are an island nation and the House should not let this opportunity slip from our grasp. I look forward to hearing support from Senators.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is anxious to speak but she is rushing to a Cabinet meeting. With Members' permission, I will allow her to speak once the Government amendment has been moved. She has a particular interest in airports, specifically Ireland West Airport Knock and Shannon Airport.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann:” and substitute the following:

"notes that: - Shannon Group, a commercial semi-state body, is a driver of economic growth in the Midwest;

- Shannon Group, which operates in both the aviation and tourism sectors, has been particularly severely impacted by Covid-19;

- the aviation and tourism sectors are major contributors to Ireland’s economy;

- successive Government policies have recognised and supported this contribution and pointed to Ireland’s reliance, in particular, on international connectivity to secure its competitive position internationally;

- Shannon Airport is an important player in delivering high quality international connectivity, particularly for the Midwest region;

- the Government is committed to balanced regional development; Project Ireland 2040 is a clear manifestation of this commitment and the Government recognises the valuable role that all our State and non-State regional airports play in this regard;

- the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’ recognises the huge value of our aviation sector in supporting economic development, international connectivity and tourism via our airports;

- the Government is committed to enhancing connectivity by ensuring safe, sustainable and competitive air access responsive to the needs of business, tourism and consumers; recognises: - prior to the onset of Covid-19, Shannon Group was on a growth trajectory with significant progress made in pursuit of its mandated objectives;

- since its formation in 2014, the Shannon Group has achieved a number of successes including:
- growing passenger numbers at Shannon Airport by 23 per cent (since separation);

- increasing commercial occupancy in the Shannon Free Zone from 40 to 90 per cent and adding almost 1 million square feet of space to the market;

- increasing Shannon Heritage visitor numbers to 963,000 in 2019 from 377,000 in 2013;

- delivery of an €18 million aircraft hangar, the first built in the State in almost 20 years; this investment has enabled the creation of in excess of 1,000 additional jobs in Shannon Free Zone;
- Shannon Group supports four in ten tourism jobs in Midwest;

- that in regard to the devastating impacts of Covid-19, in addition to supports announced in the Budget, the Government has put in place a comprehensive suite of cross-sectoral supports for companies of all sizes, including those in the aviation sector, which includes a wage subsidy scheme, grants, low-cost loans, commercial rates waiver (concluded on 27th September, 2020) and deferred tax liabilities; liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) Pandemic Stabilisation & Recovery Fund;

- the difficult decisions Shannon Group has had to take in recent months to reduce its costs and the impacts of these measures on the employees of the company which are deemed necessary to enable Shannon Group to secure the future of the airport so that it is well placed when the sector recovers from this crisis;

- the critical importance of national and regional connectivity both socially and economically; the Government commits to: - undertake an examination of the future viability and sustainability of Shannon Group, and is considering financial supports and any other measures that may be necessary and appropriate as part of a wider review of Shannon Group;

- ensure that Shannon Group is well positioned for the future particularly given the importance of Shannon Airport to the economy of the Midwest region and nationally;

- maintain Ireland’s core strategic connectivity as it is essential for us as an island, for export businesses and for foreign direct investment;

- create conditions to encourage the development of new air routes, particularly to new and emerging markets, when conditions allow;

- ensure a high level of competition among airlines operating in the Irish market;

- ensure the regulatory framework for aviation reflects best international practice; and

- consider further targeted financial supports to help reinstate connectivity, promote regional development and sustainability in the aviation sector; this will feed into the Government’s further plans to aid broader economic recovery at the appropriate time cognisant of prevailing public health advice."

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I apologise for having to leave the session early, as the Acting Chairman said I must attend a Cabinet meeting. While I have had the opportunity in recent weeks to update the House on aviation matters in general and what the Government is doing to support Irish aviation during this unprecedented crisis, I welcome the opportunity to discuss how the pandemic has affected Shannon Group.

Shannon Group is more than just Shannon Airport. The airport is the core of Shannon Group plc which was incorporated in August 2014 following enactment of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014. Shannon Group is a commercial State company and comprises two wholly owned subsidiaries, Shannon Airport Authority designated activity company, DAC, and Shannon Commercial Enterprises DAC trading as Shannon Commercial Properties. Shannon Heritage DAC is a subsidiary of Shannon Commercial Enterprises. A fourth business unit of the group is the International Aviation Services Centre, which is focused on further development of the aviation business cluster in Shannon.

Prior to the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, group in December 2012, both the airport and Shannon Development, now Shannon Commercial Enterprises, had been in decline for many years. While the loss-making operations at Shannon Airport were supported by the DAA group, control by the DAA was also seen as an obstacle to Shannon's potential for growth. Restructuring at the time was also intended to make better use of State assets to promote high levels of specialist employment in aviation-related services in a new centre of excellence in and around Shannon; to rationalise and consolidate the delivery of enterprise and tourism functions, which would eliminate duplication of work by public bodies in the region around Shannon; and to provide a more streamlined and focused role for the restructured Shannon Development in the new entity. Importantly, there was also a strong desire at the time from stakeholders in the Shannon region to separate from the DAA and be given the opportunity to independently manage the airport. I am pleased to inform the House there is plenty of evidence to show that Shannon Group project is a success. Prior to the onset of Covid-19, Shannon Group was on a growth trajectory with significant progress made in pursuit of its mandated objectives. Since its formation in 2014, the group has achieved a number of successes, including: growing passenger numbers at the airport by 23% since separation from the DAA; increasing commercial occupancy in the Shannon free zone from 40% to 90%, adding almost 1 million sq. ft of space to the market; increasing Shannon Heritage visitor numbers to 963,000 people in 2019 from 377,000 in 2013; and delivering an €18 million new wide-body aircraft painting hangar at Shannon Airport capable of accommodating some of the world's largest aircraft. This was the first hangar built in the State in almost 20 years. Before Covid, Shannon Group employed more than 600 people across its businesses and supported four in ten tourism jobs in the mid-west region.At the start of this year, it was projecting growth across each of its businesses. Shannon Airport had secured new routes and expanded capacity on existing services. The group's strong investment strategy at Shannon Commercial Properties was ongoing and marginal growth at Shannon Heritage visitor sites was anticipated. Unfortunately, as was the case for so many other businesses, Covid-19 changed all of this. The group's CEO, Ms Mary Considine, best described the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in her address to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response last week when she said that it has been catastrophic.

The impact on Shannon Airport and Shannon Heritage, in particular, has been devastating. Like other airports in Ireland and, indeed, globally, Shannon has witnessed an almost total collapse of traffic, connectivity and revenues. I am aware of the enormous efforts that have been made by Shannon Group over the past six to seven months to, first and foremost, keep staff and passengers at the airport safe and, second, keep the airport open in order to facilitate cargo operations, essential passenger travel, emergency flights, repatriation flights and diversions. I wish to put on the record my appreciation of all the management and staff of the entire Shannon Group for the commitment and the dedication shown as the country navigates its way through these unprecedented times.

I wish to mention Ms Rose Hynes, whose terms as chair of Shannon Group recently concluded. I thank Rose for her many years of dedicated service to the company. A competition to fill the position of chair of Shannon Group is under way via the Public Appointments Service and I hope this key position will be filled shortly.

In the difficult circumstances relating to Covid-19, the decisions taken by management to reduce costs have been all the more difficult. Such decisions, including those relating to temporary lay-offs, reduced working hours and the temporary closure of Shannon Heritage tourist attractions, cannot have been easy to make. Shannon Group is rightly availing of the unprecedented Government supports put in place to help mitigate the effects of the crisis on our citizens and businesses.

Airports throughout the country, including Shannon, have been able to avail of some of those measures, particularly the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, the Covid-19 unemployment payment, the commercial rates waiver and the deferred tax liabilities. The measures were further enhanced by yesterday's budget announcements where, for the first time and in recognition of the devastating effects of Covid-19, Shannon and Cork airports will have access to capital funding under an Exchequer-funded programme. Some €10 million in capital support has been made available for safety and security projects at these airports. This funding will be provided through a one-year Covid-19 regional State airports programme in line with state aid rules.

For smaller regional airports which handle scheduled services and have fewer than 1 million passengers annually, €21.3 million will also be provided next year under the regional airports programme. The programme will provide €10 million in capital funding and €11.3 million in current funding in 2021, ensuring ongoing regional connectivity through our public service obligation, PSO, services between Dublin and the two regional airports of Donegal and Kerry and will also support critical operational activities in the areas of safety and security. Like Donegal and Kerry airports, Ireland West Airport will also be eligible to apply for capital and current supports under this programme.

Senators will be aware that towards the end of the summer, Shannon Heritage had indicated that it intended to close Bunratty and King John's castles from the beginning of September. I understood this was a difficult decision, particularly in light of the importance of these site to the people of the mid-west. Arising from this, I made a commitment to support the continued opening of these sites over the winter season. I did so to safeguard jobs and secure ongoing access to these sites by local people. Unfortunately, the situation with regard to Covid-19 has since deteriorated and, in line with level 3 requirements, King John's castle is now closed. In addition, all indoor spaces in Bunratty are closed with limited outdoor access. While I remain absolutely committed to supporting companies like Shannon Heritage, it is unclear whether these sites will be able to remain fully open during the winter season given the current trajectory of the virus. With that in mind, and working in conjunction with my colleagues in Government, I believe that Shannon Heritage needs a more robust level of support to ensure its ongoing viability. That is why the Government announced a €50 million recovery and resilience scheme yesterday for strategically important tourism enterprises. It is important to note that while Government recognises that tourism is depressed at the moment, it was in the past and can again be a driver of economic recovery. I am confident that this scheme will provide the right level of supports for the many companies like Shannon Heritage to sustain core capacity in the industry and position our tourism sites for recovery.

Senator Ó Donnghaile called on the Government to commit fully to the survival and development of the Shannon Group. I can confirm that the Government is fully committed to ensuring that Shannon Group is well positioned for the future, particularly, given the importance of Shannon Airport to the economy and the mid-west region and, indeed, nationally. In this regard, I have already committed to undertaking an examination of the future viability and sustainability of Shannon Group. In this context, in addition to those I have already outlined, I will consider any further supports Shannon Group may need and will bring a memo to Government on the matter shortly.

Senator Ó Donnghaile's motion mentions that regional balanced economic development must be central to Government planning. I can assure the House that the Government is committed to balanced regional development. Project Ireland 2040 is a clear manifestation of this commitment and the Government recognises the valuable role all our State and non-State regional airports play in this regard. Again, I will refer to yesterday's budget announcement of €21.3 million in funding for our regional airports which provides further evidence that regional connectivity and development remains a critical priority for this Government. Also, the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, recognises the value of our aviation sector in supporting economic development, international connectivity and tourism via our airports. Again, I can assure the House that the Government is committed to enhancing connectivity by ensuring safe, sustainable and competitive air access responsive to the needs of business, tourism and consumers.

Every one of us here knows that Ireland, as an island nation, is particularly dependent on air connectivity both socially and economically and aviation plays a critical role in our economy. It is essential for tourism, export business and foreign direct investment. Shannon Airport is an important player in delivering high-quality international connectivity, particularly, in the mid-west region.

The policies of successive Governments have recognised the importance of air connectivity and pointed, in particular, to Ireland's reliance on international connectivity to secure its competitive position internationally. There are no plans to change this policy. The Government has committed to maintaining Ireland's core strategic connectivity. I am also particularly aware of the need to restore connectivity for the two most important international markets for the mid-west region, that is, London Heathrow and the east coast of the US. In that context, it is encouraging to note that the airport slots associated with these key routes have been protected for future use by the airlines concerned as soon as normal market conditions resume. Moreover, Aer Lingus confirmed to my Department that the connectivity commitments concerning the Heathrow slots which were secured when the State sold its shareholding to International Airlines Group, IAG, in 2015 remain in place until September 2022. Aer Lingus has also confirmed to the Department its intention to resume the specified level of services to London Heathrow as soon as circumstances allow. Given the current trajectory of the virus, we are not yet at a point where it is possible to permit a large return to air travel. For this reason, it is intended that the national economic plan to be concluded later this year will provide for appropriate measures to safeguard strategic connectivity and the resilience of the aviation sector.

I thank Sinn Fein for tabling this motion and providing me with the opportunity to discuss these important issues. There is much in this motion that I and the Government agree with wholeheartedly. I agree with the motion's positive sentiments towards the importance of the Shannon Group to the mid-west region to maintain jobs and continue economic development of the region as well as to the national economy. I agree with the need to ensure the continued survival of international air travel from the mid-west region. I agree that regional balanced economic development must be central to Government planning and I confirm that this is so.

I can also confirm that the Government is fully committed to the survival and development of Shannon Group, creating conditions to encourage the development of new air routes, particularly, to new and emerging markets when conditions allow, to ensuring a high level of competition among airlines operating in the Irish market, to ensuring the regulatory framework for aviation reflects best international practice and to considering further targeted financial supports to help reinstate connectivity, support regional development and sustainability in the aviation sector.This will feed into the Government's plans to aid broader economic recovery at the appropriate time, cognisant of the prevailing public health advice. However, the Senators' motion asks the Government to commit to the reintegration of Shannon Group, under the remit of State control, with the DAA. I cannot agree to this. In saying this, I am taking it that the Senators are referring to reintegrating Shannon Airport, but not the entire Shannon Group, with the DAA. As outlined, Shannon Group's businesses are many and varied, and many of these were never part of the DAA group. Therefore, reintegration does not arise. Shannon Group is already a State body, and integration with DAA does not change its status.

Prior to 2019, when Shannon Airport was badly affected by the global grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX, passenger numbers had been growing and Shannon Group was projecting growth across each of its business for 2020. However, forecasts across the airline sector do not now anticipate global capacity returning to 2019 levels before the 2023–24 timeframe. The question of when aviation business might be able to resume in a meaningful way is clearly linked to the evolution of the virus, ongoing travel restrictions and advisories, in addition to the more general economic outlook. Our efforts must now be focused on ensuring that Shannon Airport and Shannon Group are well positioned for the future, particularly given the importance of the economy of the mid-west region. This was the Government's thinking when it made its budget announcement yesterday, with the establishment of the Covid-19 regional State airports programme of 2021, which will benefit Cork and Shannon airports.

DAA is also focused on tackling the unprecedented challenges that the global pandemic has brought to its business. It is not helpful or appropriate at this time to contemplate major structural reform of the airport sector. That is entirely apart from the fact that Shannon Group was established as an independent basis for very sound policy reasons. There is no compelling case that the policy rationale was flawed or that the practical implementation was not delivering positive results. I am confident that, with appropriate support, Shannon Group and the wider Irish aviation industry can and will rebound quickly when this crisis passes and help to drive the wider economic recovery. I reject the Sinn Féin motion and, on behalf of the Government, I have proposed a counter-motion. I call on the House to support it.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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I have listened to the speeches of my two Seanad colleagues and the Minister of State. I am concerned by the suggestion that the parties who are seeking to amend the motion do not care about employees in Shannon Group, balanced regional development and sustaining our regional airports. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Minister of State went through this in some detail in her references, not least the references to the provisions in the budget yesterday that have put in place very substantial measures designed to support the industries and businesses in question throughout the country, including Shannon Group. I refer specifically the strategic importance of regional airports, but particularly Shannon Airport, to the development and sustenance of tourism all along the west coast, but particularly in the mid-west. I am not from Clare but my colleagues, Senator Conway and Deputy Carey, have given me chapter and verse on the importance of Shannon. I do not dispute its importance for a moment. Deputy Carey chaired today the first meeting of the new all-party committee dealing with Shannon Airport. I am looking forward to the work it will do in terms of discussing with stakeholders the needs that must be met. One does not have to be from Clare, Limerick or the mid-west to understand the importance of Shannon and the place it has in people's hearts. My family is from east Galway. I remember driving from Tuam down to Shannon along the famous N17 as family members emigrated to America and elsewhere. It has a special place in Irish hearts and the Irish psyche but even saying that is to ignore its major importance to the national economy. One has only to consider the history of Shannon to realise the important role it has played, from the seaplanes in Foynes in the 1930s to the establishment of the airport proper in 1945. It had a role in the establishment of duty free. It was the airport at which US President John F. Kennedy landed when he came to Ireland in 1963. Almost every US President who has visited the State since then has passed through the airport, initially or subsequently. It is a tremendously important access point for the national economy but particularly the economy of the mid-west and west. Nobody can deny that.

I was delighted to hear what the Minister of State said about how well the airport was performing, about the 23% growth in passenger numbers and the fact that 963,000 visitors to the region, or almost 1 million, had come through Shannon in 2019, highlighting its strategic importance regionally and nationally. That is what has grounded the decision in the budget yesterday to put so many resources into regional airports, such as the €31.3 million the Minister of State has mentioned and the Covid-19 regional airports programme. It may well be that some people describe the allocation of €10 million to Shannon and Cork as a stunt but I do not believe for a moment that this is what it is. It is a statement of intent on the part of the Government, a commitment to recognising the importance of the airports at Shannon and Cork and the other regional airports that need to be sustained.

I have a sheaf of emails from members of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association and others who work in the airline industry throughout the country, particularly in Shannon, stating the difficulties they are experiencing. I am sure other Members have received them also. There is no doubt that these days comprise the most difficult period for the aviation industry in the history of the State. Even the difficulties airlines faced in the immediate aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 did not amount to as sustained an attack on the industry as the one presented by the virus in recent months. Of course the industry is suffering.

The motion that the Senators from Sinn Féin have moved presupposes the answer to the problem. Notwithstanding what they have said about difficulties that may have existed in the past, their answer is to reintegrate Shannon Group, or at least Shannon Airport, with the DAA, which I presume is the primary goal. The reality is that every airline, airport and part of the aviation industry is suffering greatly. I am not saying we will never have to seriously consider reintegrating Shannon Airport into Dublin Airport or amalgamating the various bodies into a single airport authority as a commercial entity for all our regional airports. That time may come but it is not today. The danger of not accepting the amendment the Government has tabled is to suggest there is some kind of cure-all by putting Shannon Airport back into the DAA when, in fact, it will not solve any problems. It ignores the fact that we need to invest in Shannon, in particular, and those regional airports mentioned by speakers throughout the debate.

In moving the motion, it is important for its sponsors to acknowledge what it states. There is a danger that somebody listening to this debate might believe those proposing the amendment do not care for regional development but the amendment specifically acknowledges the importance of ensuring that Shannon Group is well positioned for the future, particularly given the importance of Shannon Airport to the economy of the mid-west. There is also a commitment to examine the future viability and sustainability of Shannon Group. The Government is not burying its head in the sand; it is stating specifically that we need to consider how we will ensure that, when economic circumstances return to normal, which we all hope will be as soon as possible, Shannon will be in a position to thrive in its own right, go back to where it was and be an independent and viable feature of the mid-west and national economies.

The Minister touched on the point that the aviation sector goes beyond the importance of connectivity to an island nation like Ireland and beyond the importance of transporting cargo as much as people. The aviation leasing sector, which to a large extent had its origins in Shannon through Guinness Peat Aviation, makes a massive contribution annually to the economy of this country. It is a sector that is suffering just as much.The amendment takes on board exactly what the Senators from Sinn Féin have said. It acknowledges the importance and centrality of Shannon Airport to our aviation sector and the role it plays in connecting various parts of the country to the world. It acknowledges that we must, on an ongoing basis, work towards ensuring Shannon Airport and other regional airports are in a position to compete at the highest level they possibly can, that they are viable and that they deliver for the various regions in the country that they serve. It also recognises that now is not the time to make the rash move of simply saying that there is a problem and the answer is reintegration. It is not. I am not saying it never will be but it certainly is not today. This is why the amendment to the motion is so important. It acknowledges all of the issues that have been raised but also recognises that instead of just coming in with a sledgehammer to crack a walnut we are saying we will look at it in a serious way on an ongoing basis, we will invest in viability and in monitoring the situation and we will ensure the viability of our regional airports throughout the country is served by the type of investment we would like to see in them.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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As the Minister of State, Deputy Naughten, must leave I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who is from the same county as me. He will sit in for the rest of the debate.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I thank Senator Gavan who has a good understanding of the issues that arise at Shannon Airport. He and I share a lot in common on this particular issue. The facts of the matter are that the separation of Shannon Airport has not worked. There have been ups and downs and it has had some good periods and some bad periods but the reality is if we look at the increase in passenger numbers into Ireland over the period of time since 2013, Shannon Airport has fallen well behind the potential growth that existed at the other airports in Dublin and Cork. This is in percentage terms. It is important that we recognise this. It has had a couple of good years but 2019 was a really bad year. It dropped by 9% and it was the only airport to show a reduction in passenger numbers.

There are difficulties in terms of what Senator Gavan set out in the motion. I agree with the vast sentiments of the motion. This is not meant to be at all patronising but it is really well meaning. The Minister of State already took up this point. We certainly do not want to make a bad situation worse. Shannon Airport did not fare terribly well under the DAA from the time it was created. What needs to happen, and the motion does not reflect it but Senator Gavan reflected it in his contribution, is that we need a single aviation authority that manages the three State airports. It should not be called the DAA.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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We should go back to the model that existed prior to the DAA, which was Aer Rianta. This would be the way. This is where we need to go in terms of the review talked about in the amendment. This is the outcome I would like to see from the process. We should come to the point that the three airports are together, not named according to one particular airport or another but with an overall authority. This could give us what we need.

The Minister of State is right with regard to the assets of the old Shannon Development in the Shannon Free Zone. Anybody who works there does not want to see it transferred to the Dublin Airport Authority because they do not think it will be well managed or maintained at that distance. Shannon Heritage certainly does not need to be transferred back to the DAA and I am against this. Senator Gavan and I have had numerous discussions with workers at Shannon Heritage. We really need to come up with a solution there. I remain to be convinced on whether the assets should be divided between the two local authorities and managed as part of the other important tourism infrastructure there or whether they should go to the Office of Public Works. Some work has to be done. We know it does not sit well as part of the airport at present. Many workers there need a sense of security and to know where Shannon Heritage is going, what is on offer and where it will be over time.

The airport itself is in a very perilous situation because of Covid. As I have identified, it was already in trouble but now with the Covid pandemic, and no end in sight of when we will get international aviation back, it is deeply worrying for the staff. Senator Gavan is right when he says workers have not been mentioned too often in this regard. I know workers are saying that if they could get back under the DAA it would give them security in the short term. Quite frankly, this can be provided in a different way. The State needs to step in. Workers at Shannon Airport cannot be treated in a lesser fashion than workers at Dublin Airport. When separation took place and they were transferred from one State entity to another there was a legitimate expectation in terms of pay increases, pension entitlements and exit packages. I know people who recently took an exit package and it was not as good as what was available for workers at Dublin Airport. That is wrong.

As has Senator Gavan, I have spoken to quite a few of the workers on temporary short time or temporary lay off who are not able to pay the bills, quite frankly. They are not able to make ends meet. This also happens in other sectors so it is not exclusive to airport workers. They are in a very perilous situation. In recent weeks, I came up with an idea. The HSE needs contact tracers and I have been in touch with the HSE and the airport authorities in this regard. I facilitated a meeting between the HSE and airport authorities and today a letter has been sent from the HR department of Shannon Airport to workers trying to ascertain whether there is an interest in this work among those on temporary lay off or working part-time. If they show interest perhaps we can get them some work with the HSE as a short-term measure. It is terrible to have to do this. They should not have to do it. They should not have to consider it but workers on temporary lay off tell me they would take anything if they could figure out how to pay the bills.

As we go forward we need to chart a way out of this and start developing a new aviation plan. The motion will certainly feed into it but the strategy will have to be more than half a page. There will have to be a new aviation policy that looks at the short, medium and long term. International aviation experts speak about it being 2023 or 2024 when we get back to appreciable levels of travel where there will be confidence among business and leisure travellers. There is also recognition that people may get out of the habit of travelling for leisure or business and with the emergence of technologies we will not, for quite some time, see the same level of activity. It puts the workers who are dependent on it in a very difficult situation.

What we do not need during the ramp up period of two, three or four years is the airlines picking off the two airports. Of course the centre of population is in Dublin and it will be easy for airlines to re-establish business there because of the traffic. If Shannon Airport is kept in an isolated fashion away from Dublin Airport it will get precious little. We have a real job to do in developing a policy so it clearly ensures that as growth happens it does so in a balanced way that protects the investment made by tourism operators, foreign direct investment companies that employ so many and the hotel and leisure sector, and so we do not allow the airlines to dictate the state of play. They will do so if Shannon Airport is pitted against Dublin Airport and Cork Airport. They will play one against the other and we will fall foul of it. There is real work to do to make sure this does not happen. We can work collectively. A cross-party group, including Senator Gavan and me, are working on this. We should start to develop the strategy from there and we can also do it in the House. We can try to get some sense of a common approach to resolving what is a real difficulty.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. It is my first time to meet him in the House since his elevation and I congratulate him. It could not happen to a better guy. I have always been a fan of his. He is a pretty decent guy.The speech that Senator Dooley just made gives me great heart for Shannon. He put much good stuff in there. My first visit to Shannon was in 1963, when I went there with a sister of mine who won a flight around Ireland. I thought it was the most awesome place in the world. My next visit was in 1968 because my father would not let me take the boat when I emigrated to London.

I fully support my Sinn Féin colleague, Senator Gavan, who has made an excellent case for the workers represented by SIPTU and the wider community in counties Clare, Limerick and Galway, and the country at large. If the citizens of these counties are looking for reassurance in the Government's amendment, I regret to say that there is none to be found. It is an insult to the families affected to state the Government recognises "the difficult decisions Shannon Group has had to take in recent months to reduce its costs and the impacts of these measures on the employees of the company which are deemed necessary to enable Shannon Group to secure the future of the airport so that it is well placed when the sector recovers from this crisis".

Senator Dooley has gone out of his way to find alternative employment for staff at Shannon Airport and I am grateful to him for that. I can see he genuinely wants to work with Senator Gavan to protect jobs. The amendment, however, is almost a textbook example of a logical fallacy, as it intimates that the sector will recover from the crisis without the contribution and commitment of a loyal workforce and without specific proactive measures from the Government. That case was made very clearly by Senator Dooley in his contribution. The Government's commitment is so vague and lacking in substance that is not, in fact, a commitment. It will be no consolation to the employees of the Shannon Group to hear that the Government commits to "undertake an examination of the future viability and sustainability of Shannon Group, and is considering financial supports and any other measures that may be necessary and appropriate as part of a wider review of Shannon Group".

We often refer to time being of the essence in this House. We are in the middle of a global pandemic and we cannot afford the luxury of "considering" and "examining". SIPTU representatives have already been before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response where they made a sensible and strong case for specific consideration to be given to aviation workers in the Shannon Group. Some of my colleagues referred to aviation workers all over the country. In that regard, I compliment Cork Airport on its work done promoting the airport. It is easy to promote Dublin Airport, but Cork Airport has done a marvellous job. I am sure my colleague, Senator Buttimer, will make that case in the not too distant future.

I fully endorse the recommendation by SIPTU that the temporary wage subsidy scheme for the aviation sector be extended until the summer of 2021 and be conditional on binding commitments from the employers. We need reassurance today that no worker will be compulsorily laid off while the employer is benefiting from the TWSS and that any recovery of the aviation sector will be predicated on strong links between the Shannon Group and its employees. I also fully support the right of workers to make contributions to their pension scheme from the TWSS. Any changes to the terms and conditions of employment should be agreed via a collective bargaining process.

I note with interest that councillors on Clare County Council, including those from the Government parties, have called for the independence of Shannon Airport to be reversed. When the airport was removed from the DAA umbrella, promises were made that 2.5 million passengers would use the airport each year. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic caused the current crisis in aviation, those figures had not been realised, despite the outstanding work of the Shannon Group. Now is the ideal time to restructure the airport sector, so that when the pandemic has abated the sector will be robust and fit for purpose. As the saying goes, a good crisis should never be wasted. I support the county councillors in Clare and my Sinn Féin colleagues in proposing that Shannon Airport be brought back under the auspices of the DAA.

Senator Dooley made specific mention of Aer Rianta International and the DAA perhaps not being the right vehicles. Senators Dooley and Gavan are living in the area and they know more than I do. Perhaps they are correct that we need to have Aer Rianta back or a similar body in place to ensure we do not have the dominance of Dublin Airport in respect of the other two regional airports. Deputy Quinlivan has already raised this matter in the Dáil. The Minister has met the unions and the belief is that a change would take two or three years and would not solve the underlying strategic issues. Senator Dooley also made that point, as did Senator Gavan.

We must make strategic decisions about Shannon Airport. I am not sure that reconnecting to the DAA would immediately assist in allowing us to do that. I am sure we need a governing body for the airports. I ask the Minister of State to explain why Shannon Airport is not being brought back under a national umbrella. In the 1980s, when I lived in Limerick - I lived there until the mid-1990s - Shannon Airport had a proud workforce. For as long as I can remember, however, the airport has struggled. To bring it back on stream, we will need investment and a centralised authority that will manage all our airports. We also need to guarantee the jobs at the airport. Senator Dooley made the point that the workers expected their terms and conditions to transfer automatically. Senator Gavan has been working on that issue as part of his involvement with SIPTU, but it did not happen.

Shannon Airport has been pushed further and further out, which is something we have to change. My colleagues spoke about Knock airport and its strategic importance to the north-west region. Shannon Airport is vital to the mid-west and Limerick city. One of the great things about moving to Limerick, Shannon and Clare is that the people there are quite cosmopolitan and welcome strangers to their area. The establishment of Shannon Development resulted in foreigners from around the world coming to Shannon Airport, including from South Africa when the De Beers diamonds company set up in the area. That made Shannon a very welcoming place. County Clare, particularly Ennis, benefited from that, as did Limerick. The knock-on effects of Shannon Airport for the region are substantial. We do not need an amendment to Senator Gavan's motion. What we need is for the motion to be accepted. I wish my colleagues the best as they move forward. I hope we can work together on this issue.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank Senator Gavan and the Sinn Féin group for bringing forward this motion. I also thank the Ministers of State, Deputies Feighan and Hildegarde Naughton, for coming into the House to discuss it. Coming from Dublin, I am struck by the great degree of openness and collaboration among people from the mid-west region regarding Shannon Airport. All of us come to this discussion with the best of intentions to try to find a solution.

During the discussion we had on the wider aviation sector some weeks ago, I said that we were a small island nation in the middle of a perfect storm for the aviation industry. We are faced with Brexit, climate change and a wipe-out of passenger numbers arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The western seaboard, in particular, is dependent on Shannon and Cork airports and those smaller regional airports are struggling. I commend Senator Gavan on introducing the motion, keeping the issue of Shannon Airport on the agenda during these turbulent times and prioritising and focusing on workers' rights in every statement he makes on this issue.

I noted in yesterday's budget that the small amount of capital funding given to Cork and Shannon airports did little to support the workers who lost their jobs or have taken pay cuts. I hope some conditionality can be attached to the funding in respect of workers when those grants are distributed. As I said in a previous contribution, it is essential that any support given to the industry is conditional on compliance with workers' rights.

In this time of crisis, we need the State and stakeholders in the sector to act together to ensure our airlines and supporting industries are viable in future. From listening to the contributions from both sides in this House, it is clear there is cross-party support for ensuring the future viability of Shannon Airport and widespread agreement on this issue.I know there are mixed feelings about taking Shannon back into the control of the DAA and other possible alternatives have been suggested. There is a feeling among some that the DAA tried to choke Shannon when it came under its control. I think we can all agree that a unified plan for a strategic approach to international connectivity is crucial and challenging, and will require the support of all stakeholders and political parties within the region. Balanced regional development is not just good for the mid-west, it is good for the Dublin region and it is good for the rest of the island.

I cannot support what the Government's amendment states about ensuring competition among the airlines, which is contained in the last couple of paragraphs, because I do not believe this is the way to go. A wider discussion is required with stakeholders on how the airline will be operated, but as a small island with small airports I do not think we should promote competition among airports. It is crucial for the entire island that we have good connectivity for the wider regions.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I do not support the motion but I support the amendment to the motion. In some ways I find it somewhat ridiculous and I wonder if we are wasting our time on this motion. I am sure Senator Gavan, like everyone else, knows that Shannon Group is not just an airport, it is a large entity that has assets, so this motion is almost a waste of time. If he had said "Shannon Airport" rather than "Shannon Group" it might have made more sense. I would really appreciate it if he put down his phone and listened to me because I listened to him when he was speaking.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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We cannot be double-jobbing and be on the phone and a politician at the same time. We will get into trouble. It is great that Senator Gavan is talking to employees and union representatives. In case he is in any doubt, we have all been talking to union representatives and employees, so there is nothing really amazing about that. We have attended meetings with them individually and in groups all along. Senator Gavan speaks in such a way as to suggest Sinn Féin is the only party that cares. We will be keeping Shannon on the agenda for everybody. It is great that the Opposition likes to oppose everything, but we must look at solutions here and not throw random motions around the place just to get some attention.

Bringing Shannon Group under the DAA is a ridiculous notion. Does Senator Gavan want the DAA to be in charge of the scruff of grass in Kilrush? Does he want it to be in charge of Bunratty Castle and the Brendan voyage boat in Craggaunowen? Is it the job of the DAA to deal with heritage sites or assets in warehouses in Shannon? That is a ridiculous notion. Could we stop wasting time bringing in motions just for the sake of getting attention when it is not the focus?

All of us in this House, including Senator Gavan, are passionate about Shannon not just surviving but thriving and making it an international airport of the highest standards. We know Covid is here. That is nobody's fault and everybody is trying to do their best to get the airport back on its feet and shining again. As stated in the amendment, it is very important to have a proper examination of the future viability of Shannon Group. That is something useful that I could support. The viability of Shannon Group must be properly researched. Perhaps it would be better off just dealing with the assets and perhaps the airport should be a separate entity and then we could talk about bringing it under the DAA but until we get to that point this is a ridiculous motion. I rest my case.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I do not know how to follow Senator Garvey because she has said a lot. I understand the sentiment of the motion but the principal and fundamental underpinning is, as Senator Garvey said, that Shannon Group is not just an airport. Therein lies part of the difficulty. Despite what Members think and what I might say, I am not interested in having a Shannon versus Cork debate and rivalry, even though there is competition, which is healthy, because Shannon is to the mid-west what Cork is to the south.

Tonight's debate is very important in the context of regional airports because there is commonality and we agree that regional airports are necessary and fundamental and are economic drivers of the regions where we all come from. As a very proud Cork person, speaking and advocating for Cork Airport, what I want to see happen is that Shannon Airport and Cork Airport would co-exist and be equally successful in acting as a counterbalance to Dublin and the Dublin-Belfast axis, in terms of economic development but also in aviation. That is what we should focus on in the debate and in the future.

To be fair to Senator Dooley, he is a very capable member of the transport committee. We have had the airlines, the aviation sector, the DAA, representatives of Shannon Airport, and we had the Irish Travel Agents Association in today and we understand fully the mammoth task involved in getting people back travelling. The backdrop is that Shannon and Cork have a sword hanging over them in terms of whether Ryanair will continue to use them as bases. That is why tonight's debate is timely. I understand the Minister had to attend a Cabinet meeting. That is regrettable, but I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, on his appointment and elevation and wish him well in his new role. What we must be focused on is growing passenger numbers and ensuring support for the aviation sector. Let us have an honest debate about that.

The sum of €31 million has been allocated for regional airports. Yesterday, there was a very welcome €10 million in the Government's budget announcement for Cork and Shannon airports. I believe they will receive €5 million each. If there is to be equality of funding then Shannon has already got €11 million and Cork has got €5 million and there is €31 million to be divided. If we are talking about equivalence then there should be fair treatment for all airports. What we want is the best for our airports and the staff working in them. To be fair, I can speak for the staff in Cork Airport, whom I have met but to be honest I have not met the staff in Shannon. They have made significant changes to work practices and how they do business. It is a testament to the relationship they have with management and to the future they see for the airport that this has happened. There is a need for a level playing field but, equally, it is important that the Government understands the precariousness of the aviation sector. I challenge those following the debate at home, and those interested, to go back to the recent meetings of the Oireachtas transport committee hearings where we have been dealing with this very difficult situation. It is about support and testing and Europe working together to ensure that the traffic light system works for the sector and the travelling public, and that we restore confidence in the aviation sector.

You come from a Border county, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. You have seen what has happened in the past ten days. Monday was a significant day in the European Union for the aviation sector. There are impending announcements on having a green, red and amber system, a testing regime and a decision by Ryanair on its bases in Cork and Shannon, which will have a profound impact on jobs, connectivity and balanced regional development. If we are to stand for balanced regional development, irrespective of our ideology, political philosophy or affiliation, then central to the connectivity is the hub represented by Cork and Shannon airports to their respective regions.That is why I and others - I give Senator Dooley and Deputy Carey credit for this - have repeatedly raised the issue of aviation. I understand the jobs associated with it, both direct and indirect, and the issue of connectivity. What happens if, tomorrow morning, flights to and from these two airports cease completely? Our connectivity would be ended. There is an old saying; when they are gone, they are gone. I believe it was used an advertisement for Right Price Tiles. Is that the case for the airlines' flights, routes and aeroplanes? Airlines have operated flights in order that they would not have to refund people. That is why this motion is welcome.

I appeal to Senator Gavan not to divide the House on Friday because we all want to see Cork Airport and Shannon Airport survive and for them to get back to where they were as regards growing passenger numbers. I appeal to the Cathaoirleach and to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, as the Government representative here tonight. We need not only a Private Members' motion tonight but a rolling debate in this House and in the Lower House on testing, routes, route development and the framework of a reasonable airport programme. I welcome the debate. I really hope we will see further targeted supports for our airports because that is what the workers and others involved in our airports deserve and need.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I will speak to the Government amendment. When it came through yesterday, Sinn Féin sent it on to some of the airport workers so that they could have a look at it. The response came back within minutes and told us all we needed to know. One of the workers captured the mood, saying "This isn’t an amendment, it’s a totally different motion full of words that resemble the guff that was used when rolling out separation.” It is a rambling series of statements that ultimately says nothing about the most important issue facing the long-term future of the airport, that is, the failure of separation.

The Minister of State need not take my word for it, apart from Deputies Wynne and Quinlivan, Deputy Cathal Crowe from County Clare has been quoted as saying "I don’t think separation has served Shannon well" before going on to suggest:

we bring it back together with Dublin and Cork operating as a national airport authority. A lot of European countries operate like that.

This amendment tells us all that we need to know. It tells us that the Government is in denial about the failure of separation. It is tragic that, right now, when the Government is reviewing Shannon Airport's operations and when a united voice is needed with regard to the failure of separation, Government Senators, including those from Clare, are opting to vote for this amendment, an empty formula of words which gives no direction to the Minister on this crucial issue.

Let us look at the facts of Shannon Airport's performance. The airport was separated from the authority at the very lowest point of the last worldwide recession. Passenger numbers had fallen from over 3 million to 1.4 million. The airport had to increase passenger numbers but the rate of increase, after a few decent years, effectively ground to a halt in 2015, just two years after separation. Since then, it has been a story of underperformance and failure. The gap between Cork Airport, which is within the DAA group, and Shannon Airport is perhaps the most telling statistic. In 2008, Cork Airport had just 100,000 passengers more than Shannon Airport. By 2019, that gap had grown to nearly 900,000 passengers. That is a measure of the failure of the Shannon Group under the current structures.

The Minister of State should be in no doubt that, if he speaks to workers at the airport, they will tell him that separation has been a disaster. They have no confidence in the current management to act within a stand-alone framework or to deliver a recovery from the Covid crisis. God knows what they must be thinking as they watch this debate and see their local representatives duck for cover on the issue of the failure of separation. I note only one Government Senator remains in the Chamber, namely, Senator Dooley. All of the others have gone home.

The amendment also makes reference to Project Ireland 2040. I am a bit confused by this. It is my understanding that Project Ireland 2040 has yet to be reviewed. It is in the programme for Government that it is to be reviewed. The Green Party did not support Project Ireland 2040 when it was announced in 2017. Deputy Eamon Ryan said that we needed a new national development plan. According to this motion, which the Green Party is happy to support, "the Government is committed to balanced regional development; Project Ireland 2040 is a clear manifestation of this commitment and the Government recognises the valuable role that all our State and non-State regional airports play in this regard". It is a bit rich for all of this support to suddenly surround Project Ireland 2040 despite the fact that it has not yet been reviewed.

Limerick Chamber has also said that Project Ireland 2040 was a missed opportunity that will be regretted for generations to come. It also said that the plan ignores the mid-west and Shannon Airport's capacity to rebalance the national economy and that "There are a number of key projects detailed for this region in the National Development Plan but, by and large, these were already announced."

The Government's Project Ireland 2040 is a policy aspiration; the motion we are presenting is policy action. At the time of its launch, Fianna Fáil described Project Ireland 2040 as having been filled with hype and buzzwords.

I speak as someone from Dublin who believes that the city is overwhelmed, that appropriate levels of development and activity are needed across the island, and that we need to challenge the way the city is run. Dublin Airport's hub connectivity has increased by 286% over the past ten years, making Dublin Airport one of four new entrants to the best hub connectivity rankings alongside Düsseldorf, Warsaw and Berlin airports. A transfer hub costing €16 million opened in 2018, with Dublin Airport's connecting passenger numbers growing from 550,000 in 2013 to almost 1.6 million in 2018.

As has been mentioned by Sinn Féin speakers here tonight, being an island nation with a broad disparity in economic prosperity, planning our infrastructure towards one city on the island whose traffic system cannot cope and which suffers from chronic housing shortages and astronomical rents is creating long-term problems. I live in the city and I know that it is run for an economy rather than for a society. A policy centred on the east is feeding the problem in Dublin and starving the solution in the west. Stories of buses transporting people from Shannon to Dublin Airport for transatlantic flights do not make sense on so many levels. It makes no sense from the perspectives of local employment, the environment or balanced economic development.

A report by Danish consultancy Copenhagen Economics commissioned by Limerick Chamber last year looked at the dominance of Dublin Airport over others. It accounted for 86% of all traffic in 2018, up from 76% a decade before. It was suggested in the report that regional airports should be developed to handle excess capacity from the capital in order to entice further foreign direct investment in the west and mid-west.

Shannon Airport is in difficulty because of Covid but it was in decline long before that because of Government inaction. The airport's reintegration into a national authority is about the mid-west, the west of Ireland and the intention to establish a balanced economy. The amendment states that this Government wants to examine Shannon Group and to look at the supports that may be necessary. The amendment seeks to "ensure that Shannon Group is well positioned for the future". How exactly is this to be done? Further financial supports are to be considered but this will not give the people of the mid-west any confidence. It is empty rhetoric designed to dodge the major issue. The issue remains the failure of the separation project. Tonight was an opportunity to send a clear message to the Minister to change direction in respect of Shannon Airport and to reintegrate it into one national airport authority.It is disappointing Government Senators have, instead, decided to play party politics and turn their backs on the airport's employees, as well as the many businesses which depend on its key routes to Heathrow and the east coast of the US.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank all of the contributors to this useful debate. For the most part, contributions on this topic were thoughtful.

We must begin by recognising 90% of flights that leave this island leave from the east coast. When we talk about regional balance, we must start where we actually are and recognise there is no regional balance. It must be recognised that the west has been continuously failed in terms of regional balance and proper perspective in transport policy for decades. It must also be recognised, as so many Members across many parties said, that the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority has fundamentally failed. My colleague, Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne, in Clare has been steadfast on this issue. My colleague, Deputy Maurice Quinlivan, both as a councillor and a Deputy, has been steadfast on this issue. Sinn Féin stood with the workers and the unions as far back as 2012 saying that this policy would not work. We take no pleasure in saying that we have been proved correct.

The issues around Shannon Group are quite simple to resolve. The exigencies of how one would reintegrate Shannon into a new airport authority can easily be worked out. For example, Sinn Féin is on record as stating that Shannon Heritage should actually go to the Office of Public Works as we believe that would be a better home for it. That is up for discussion. The property company around the Shannon Free Zone must stay with the airport as it is an integral part of the wider business make-up that we need.

To hear one Senator regard the genuine wishes of the majority of workers in the airport as being ridiculous is frankly insulting. However, as that Senator has not decided to stay for the debate, I will not say anything further on that particular topic.

I hope the Minister of State will pass on to his colleagues that, across all sections of the Chamber, we have heard recognition of the fact that the separation of Shannon has failed. The key point in our motion is that we will not fix this without dealing with that issue. We need investment. The investment yesterday was welcome but it was just the start. We will need much more. Unless we tie that investment into an integrated network of airports, it will fail again.

It might not be popular to say this but the current management of Shannon Group has failed fundamentally. It has to be called out. It has not delivered, in the past few years in particular. The statistics are there for all to see and the workers know it. They are furious that they see much larger director fees. There seems to be no end of wealth for the guys at the top. For the people on the ground, however, whether they work in Shannon Heritage or in the airport, they have to face more hardship.

I hope what will come from this debate is a recognition that something fundamentally has to change. My concern is that right now the Minister is looking at a review of Shannon. If these decisions are not taken now, will we have another review of Shannon next year or the year after? This is the time when the fundamental decision on the future Shannon has to be made. I accept what Senator Dooley said. We can call it a new national airport authority. The name clearly has to change. We need to be at one - many of us - that an integrated network of airports is the future, not just for Shannon but also for Cork and the other airports across the west.

I cannot accept the amendment because as Senator Warfield has pointed out, it is too vague and offers no direction. If the Minister accepts it, it just gives one a whole potpourri of choices that one could pursue. What I wanted to come from this debate was a clear direction of choice. That direction of choice is to reintegrate Shannon into a new airport authority and then give it the regional balance it needs. This will ensure the management of that new airport authority is clear that regional balance must be at its heart. That is what we do not have at the moment. That is why it is failing in terms of regional balance. That is why nine out of ten flights, when they do resume, will still be going from the east coast. That is why we have to make this change now.

There have been constructive contributions. It is important to give Shannon the focus. We must do more, however, and that is why I will be pressing this to a vote on Friday.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Before we move on to the formalities, I want to acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan, our distinguished former colleague with whom we were all proud to serve.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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It is great to see him back here. I congratulate him on his appointment.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I speak for the entire Chamber on this matter. We are delighted to have a former Member here. It gives us all a sense of hope that when two of our Members are Ministers we can all be slightly optimistic.

Amendment put.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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In accordance with the order of the Seanad on Wednesday, 7 October 2020, the division is postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Friday, 16 October 2020. The House stands adjourned until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 16 October 2020, in the Dáil Chamber, in accordance with the order of the Seanad of Wednesday, 7 October 2020.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.07 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 16 October 2020.