January 31: Government should not cash in its Aer Lingus chips

When the Government led by Bertie Ahern approved the flotation of Aer Lingus almost nine years ago, one of the principal reasons it retained a 25.1% stake in the airline was to protect its valuable landing slots at Heathrow, 24 in total. Now, the moment is at hand. The Aer Lingus board has approved a sale of the company to IAG, but the stake owned by the State was retained in 2006 for good reasons. And if the present Government cannot secure long-term guarantees over the future of the Heathrow slots, it should not cash in its chips.

When the Government led by Bertie Ahern approved the flotation of Aer Lingus almost nine years ago, one of the principal reasons it retained a 25.1% stake in the airline was to protect its valuable landing slots at Heathrow, 24 in total. Now, the moment is at hand. The Aer Lingus board has approved a sale of the company to IAG, but the stake owned by the State was retained in 2006 for good reasons. And if the present Government cannot secure long-term guarantees over the future of the Heathrow slots, it should not cash in its chips.

Naturally, our deepest concern in the Mid-West centres on the three Shannon-Heathrow slots, but all Irish citizens have reason to be alarmed by any compromising of the country’s present level of connectivity with Heathrow – and thus the wider world.

If IAG were to take control, it would not matter a jot what comforting words were thrown out there to reassure us about the deal.

The nature of capitalism is that sooner or later the bottom line will always take precedence. IAG’s shareholders have no vested interest in the connectivity of a small island nation; the vast majority have no interest in Ireland whatsoever. Shannon or Stockholm? Cork or Cairo? For the eventual answer, just follow the money.

The fact that an Irishman, Willie Walsh, currently heads up the company might mean something, for a while. But CEOs come and go in the international business world. Our Mid-West representatives at Leinster House are perfectly clear on the seriousness of this situation – in particular those who are part of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition. Most have already made their views plain, in public and behind closed doors within their own parties. They know that if the Government sells its stake and the Shannon slots were subsequently lost, the ire of the local electorate would be ferocious. The Heathrow horse will have bolted by then and there won’t be a thing anyone can do about it, apart from punish those who could have made a stand when the deal was still in play.

The closure of Barringtons’ Hospital ultimately forced Willie O’Dea into the political wilderness, for quite a time, because he rightly voted against his own Government on the issue. Twenty-seven years on, the Shannon-Heathrow slots loom large as another issue with the potential to unite the people in protest. It has been reported that there is little appetite among Government TDs for the sale of the country’s stake in Aer Lingus. Whatever about the Dublin-Heathrow route, one of the busiest in Europe, it is difficult to conceive of a deal being struck that would offer long-term reassurance over the Shannon and Cork slots.

But if – for whatever reason – the Government does decide to take money, in a scenario where no copperfastened guarantees are made, local deputies will be aware of the potential consequences for them. Like Willie O’Dea before them, they will feel the will of the people. They’ll know what they must do on behalf of those who put them in the Dail.