(Mayo): I move:
That Dáil Éireann:
recognising the success of the national airline, Aer Lingus, the company's proud record of quality service since the airline was established 65 years ago and the importance of the national airline to an island nation, condemns the Minister for Public Enterprise for:–
her failure to protect or promote the welfare of the company over the past four years;
her failure to promote a positive industrial relations climate within the company;
her total confusion and lack of vision as to the airline's role and future;
her decision to allow the company to be sold by way of a trade sale;
her failure to ensure that the Aer Lingus workers are made aware of the Government's intentions and calls on the Government to:
abandon immediately any plans to sell off Aer Lingus by way of a trade sale; and
make a clear statement as to what Government plans are for the future of the airline.
I wish to share time with Deputies Owen and Donal Carey.
The people of Ireland have a very strong attachment to Aer Lingus. Over the past 65 years, since the company was set up in 1936, it has carried the flag and the symbol of Ireland throughout the world. It is truly part of what we are. For Irish citizens, and the millions of people of Irish ancestry, the Irish diaspora, who use Aer Lingus to fly to Ireland, it is true to say that once the seat-belt is secure, you feel as if you have already arrived home. Aer Lingus has an unrivalled safety record. It has a permanent place in our concept of Irishness. As an island nation, it is also important to have our own national air carrier.
Aer Lingus made £60 million profit in the year 2000 and it employs up on 6,000 staff. This makes all the more pathetic the current paralysis of thought or ideas on the part of the Government as to where exactly the airline is and what exactly is the airline's future. Two weeks ago the Minister for Public Enterprise delivered the ultimate insult to our proud national carrier when it was announced that she was considering selling off the airline in a trade sale. Small wonder that the trades union movement reacted angrily by dismissing the Minister's proposal as tantamount to a basement fire sale. When questioned about the trade sale in the Dáil last Tuesday, the Taoiseach was adamant that an IPO is still very much an option. Therefore, the Taoiseach favours one option, which is clearly not a realistic prospect if he took the trouble to look at the situation or to listen to, or examine, the expert advice for which the taxpayer has already paid more than £700,000, and on the other hand the Minister for Public Enterprise clearly favours putting the airline on the market and allowing the highest bidder take over one of the jewels of the semi-State sector.
No previous Government, and certainly no previous Minister, has ever shown such abject disinterest in the national airline as the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke. For four years she has dithered while the airline has stumbled from crisis to crisis. In the past nine months alone, cabin crew have been on strike on more than one occasion. They closed the airline down on successive days, leaving 18,000 passengers stranded and costing the airline £2 million per day. Despite this, the Minister stood idly by. When the clerical staff paralysed the company, grounding flights and costing £2 million each time things ground to a halt, the Minister again donned the garb of a disinterested spectator. Baggage handlers and caterers all took industrial action at different stages, each time impacting on the airline's services, and again the Minister washed her hands of it. In addition, the pilots lodged a 70% pay claim in pursuit of parity with their colleagues in the One World Alliance and Aer Lingus management, which is one of the most costly sectors, lodged their own individual salary pay claim. While an uneasy peace has descended on the airline for the present, one must be apprehensive about how long it will last because there does not seem to be any comprehensive overall inter-locking strategy or agreement in place.
One also must be apprehensive of the fact that much of the disruption and industrial disharmony stems from competition within the airline between the two rival trades unions, IMPACT and SIPTU. I know of no other Minister, who has custody of one of the most important instruments of commercial life in a country, who has displayed such a manifest lack of concern as the company, which she controls and of which she is the major shareholder, was beset by such a myriad of problems as in the case of Aer Lingus. The Minister seems to have no clear focus and no vision of where the airline is going or what the airline's future should be.
On 12 June 2000, the Aer Lingus Bill was published. The explanatory memorandum, which sets out the thrust of the Bill, states that the purpose of the Bill is to provide a legal framework to enable an initial public offering of shares in Aer Lingus Group plc to proceed. The Bill duly passed all Stages in the Seanad and since then it has been grounded.
Each time we asked the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Enterprise if the IPO was to proceed, we were assured that this was still the intention once the industrial relations problems within the company were resolved. The reality is that the IPO has never been a realistic prospect for several compelling reasons. First, the credibility of this Government, particularly of this Minister, to manage the flotation of a further State utility has been irreparably damaged by the debacle of the Eircom flotation.