The Aer Lingus IPO is still, as the Minister said, on target for the end of the year, possibly the beginning of the new year, depending on market conditions. We had formal discussions with the unions and the Minister met them the other day as well. That is very much on target. On the energy side, we liberalised the energy market earlier this year. On the aviation side, we had hoped - I am not sure given the current issues in the Dáil - to the take the Aviation Regulation Bill, 2000, tomorrow through to the next Stage but I gather it may be put back to the autumn. We have established a shadow aviation regulator whose office is up and running. He does not have any legal powers at present but he acts on behalf of the Minister, who still has the legal powers, particularly in regard to airport charges.
On the electricity side the Minister announced the early liberalisation of the electricity market - bringing forward not only what was required under the directive but moving beyond that. The outcome of the tripartite negotiations involving the management, unions and the Department was to buy into certain things, early liberalisation and in relation to the peat stations, the closure of some of the older type technologies and their replacement with two new peat-powered stations, and the electricity market intimately linked to the gas market because gas will be the major power going forward other than renewable energy. We would hope that the Gas (Amendment) Bill which is going through the Houses will be completed before the recess. That will allow us to continue to proceed with what has been proposed.
The electricity regulator has been given specific functions, on behalf of the Minister, on an administrative basis, as opposed to on a legal basis, in regard to competition, liberalising the gas market and deciding on who gets gas for the next electricity market. We believe there will be sufficient gas for about two new players immediately. As the new gas comes on board from the Corrib field off the west coast with the North-South interconnector and/or enhancing the east-west one into the UK, there are issues there for discussion and they are all in the melting pot.
In relation to telecommunications, we have liberalised the market. The Minister made an announcement after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday about her proposals to go the last mile which involves the local loop in the telecommunications market. There will then be competition for the last mile with the local exchange. That is a critical element to finish the package.
At the Lisbon Summit and again at Feira where Europe was looking at its competitivenessvis-à-vis the US, bringing forward the early unbundling of the local loop was a big issue. Even though there is a debate on it the consensus is that competition is important for the economy. We have seen the impact of competition on telecommunications, we saw it in the aviation industry ten years ago. After the Government meeting the other day the Taoiseach made a point about measures to curb inflation - competition is one of the elements in that. What we have been trying to do is to move them in parallel with the infrastructural development which my colleague, Mr. Pat Mangan, is involved in the public transport side.