Dual-Gateway Policy: Motion.

A motion has been formally proposed by Deputy Shortall and seconded by Deputy Breen. An amendment to the motion has been received from Deputies Power and Brady. Copies of both have been circulated.

I move:

That due to the potentially serious economic implications of changes to the current dual-gateway policy for the west of Ireland, this Committee calls on the Minister for Transport to make no changes to the U.S. - Ireland Aviation Bilateral Agreement until such time as a comprehensive economic impact study has been carried out and until this Committee has had an opportunity to consider that study.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all the words after "That" where it first occurs and insert the following:

"this Committee

- agrees with the Minister that the new and liberalised market will have significant benefits for Irish tourism and business, for citizens wishing to travel to the US, for Aer Lingus, for other Irish airports which currently do not have scheduled services to the USA, will allow Shannon to retain its position as an important destination for US/Ireland traffic and may offer significant opportunities for Shannon to develop itself as a hub for traffic between the USA and Europe in the context of the enlargement of the Community next year;

- notes the Minister's stated commitment that he will not agree to any changes until he is fully satisfied that Shannon has an equal or greater volume of aviation business available to it, and

- supports the Minister's decision that discussion will take place between his Department and all the necessary interests on these matters, including Shannon interests, the European Commission, the US authorities and Aer Lingus."

I second the amendment.

Do members wish to discuss the motion?

I tabled this motion last week as a result of our meeting with the delegation from the Shannon region who was before the joint committee last Tuesday. We all agreed the delegation made an extremely professional and convincing presentation. We all share its concern about the potential economic implications of any change to the current dual gateway policy. Those representing the mid-west region have every reason to be concerned about those implications. It made a very sensible proposal at the meeting. All it asked was that we would take our time and that the Minister would take his time in changing the policy and that before any change was mooted he would carry out a full economic assessment of the likely implications of such a change in policy. That is an eminently sensible and reasonable approach to take. It would be foolhardy for the Minister or any public representatives to support a change in policy if there is a potential serious negative impact from that change in policy.

When he discussed this matter initially in the media, the Minister said it would be two to two and a half years before any change in policy would take place yet other sources, and particularly the chief executive of Aer Lingus, suggested that decisions could be taken within a much shorter timeframe, possibly within eight weeks. That raised serious concern for all of us as public representatives, and for those interested in the mid-west region, that anything precipitative would happen over the summer months. For that reason I tabled this motion which reflects the views and concerns not only of the delegation but of all of us as members of the transport committee.

I completely reject the amendment that has been tabled overnight, which is vacuous and fairly meaningless. It states that the liberalised market may offer significant opportunities for Shannon to develop. What does that mean? We all hope it would offer significant opportunities, if it happened, but we do not know what will be the implications of that. That is the point. We do not know how Shannon and the Shannon region, and all the critical jobs that have been created as a result of a thriving Shannon Airport, will be affected. Are we to accept the commitment from the Minister that he will not carry out any changes until he is fully satisfied that Shannon has an equal or greater volume of aviation business? What does "until he is fully satisfied" mean? How will he be satisfied in that regard? The amendment is fairly vague and meaningless and it offers cold comfort to those who are genuinely concerned about the impact of a change in policy on Shannon.

I hope members will support the original motion. It is not tying anybody's hands or trying to set down policy. It is simply saying we should be careful about what we are doing and we should be prudent and assess the likely impact of any change in policy prior to any change taking place. I hope members will show some common sense and support the motion.

I was shocked to see Deputy Peter Power's name on the amendment when it was e-mailed to me last night. The amendment is vague and mischievous and if I were in Deputy Power's shoes, I would not have tabled it. Deputy Power is a very good solicitor and he has a very good name in Limerick. If I went into Deputy Power's practice with a case he would first want to hear the facts. The facts are clear in Deputy Shortall's motion, that we should wait——

It would cost a lot more money to see Deputy Power than it would cost to——

Deputy Power would look for the facts.

I no longer practise as a solicitor. Deputy Breen should stick to the facts rather than personalising matters.

Unfortunately, the members opposite have jumped the gun in respect of this amendment. Deputy Shortall's motion is straightforward. It suggests we should wait until the tax study has been done by Mr. Sorensen and Mr. Dukes. The amendment put forward by Deputy Power and Deputy Brady appears to have come straight from the Department of Transport. It is aspirational. It refers to opening US airlines' opportunities to other Irish airports. I have no problem with that but the facts are clear. When US services were opened to other countries throughout Europe, only the capital cities were serviced by US airlines. If that happens here, Dublin will be the only area serviced. We have a balanced arrangement currently for people coming into Ireland - 44% as against 56% - and we should not try to create discord between Cork and Shannon. I ask Deputy Power to withdraw the amendment. It is wrong and he will have a lot of explaining to do to his constituents in Limerick if the US airlines decide, in any new agreement, to service Dublin only, particularly if job losses occur which will happen if there is any change in the position. As the Minister said to me during priority questions last week, Aer Lingus has gone to him requesting the opening up of new services, particularly into San Francisco and Orlando, and to service Dublin only.

Does this amendment reflect the views of the other members in the mid-west region? I do not believe it does because Mr. Dukes and Mr. Sorensen, who are compiling the open skies report, are excellent people who will produce a fair and balanced report. Deputy Shortall's motion is fair. We are dealing with the facts. Let us wait until we have the facts before we make a decision. I ask Deputy Power to withdraw his amendment.

I support the motion tabled by Deputy Shortall and Deputy Breen. Reading the amendment it appears afait accompli that because open skies negotiations are taking place between the EU and the US, the Shannon dual gateway status will be gone once and for all. It has been clearly presented to us, both by the witnesses who came before the committee last week and from discussions at EU level, that that is not a prerequisite and that we can have an open skies agreement between the US and the EU while retaining the dual gateway status between Shannon and Dublin.

The Deputy should not read into an amendment something that is not stated in it.

Concern was expressed by the witnesses that a decision could be made within a few weeks, and the last paragraph of the amendment gives the Minister the go-ahead to have discussions with the US authorities. The concern was that prior to any agreement being reached between the EU and the US, an agreement on open skies would be reached between the Irish Government and the US authorities which would remove the dual gateway status. All we ask is that before any decisions are taken an economic impact assessment should be done on the decision to remove the dual gateway status. That is in line with Government stated policy. We ask that the Government implement its own policy as set out in the spatial strategy, which refers to the underdeveloped regions growing and developing. We ask that the Government would carry out an assessment to determine if this proposal fits in with its policy. That is a balanced request.

A strong case was made to the committeeregarding the dual gateway which has had a huge economic impact on the western seaboard. I have no difficulty with opening up the dual gateway to include airports such as Knock and Cork. No one in any area of the country has a difficulty with that, but what we are talking about is a regional balance between Dublin and the rest of the country so that we can bring in tourists who will visit areas other than Dublin. A strong case was made to the committee by witnesses that 60% of tourists travelling to Dublin stay in the vicinity of the city, which has a huge economic impact throughout the country. An assessment along the lines of the motion would strengthen our case at EU level, to allow operators to fly into Shannon, Cork or Knock Airports. Currently, chartered flights can fly into any of our international airports and, hopefully, the Minister will encourage the development of such services while these discussions are ongoing. We should assess the impact of any decision on changing the dual gateway status before a policy decision is taken. The motion before us is reasonable. I ask Deputies Peter Power and Martin Brady to withdraw their amendment and support this motion. We are not making any decisions on it; all we are seeking is that balanced consideration should take place.

I thank you, Chairman, for the opportunity to address the committee, even though I am not a member. I took the opportunity to come in here last week when the delegation was here. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Shortall, on tabling this motion, which is very important at this time. There is no reason for the Minister to rush into the decision he appears to want to make. I join with my colleagues in appealing to my constituency colleague, Deputy Peter Power, to withdraw his amendment to the Labour Party motion. I find it extraordinary that a colleague in Limerick East would table such an amendment, which in effect is encouraging the Minister on the path he appears to want to take. I am certain that would threaten jobs in the mid west region in general, and in the whole western part of the country. As other speakers have said, it is a reasonable request to seek an economic impact assessment on a decision which could so profoundly affect the economic life of half the country. Approximately 37,000 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on Shannon Airport. If there is a change in the gateway status there will be serious concerns, which were well expressed here last week, as to how that would affect jobs.

Inevitably there is a draw to the capital. Airlines look at their base line and it will be tempting for many of them to have only one gateway into this country. While the Minister argues that this will provide more opportunities, I would argue that it could actually reduce the number of flights coming into Ireland. If they are all coming into one airport, inevitably, it is quite likely there will be a reduction. These are serious economic and social concerns for a large section of the country.

Deputy Peter Power should withdraw his motion. I understand that Senator Dooley, who also comes from the mid-west region, has concerns about this amendment. Having attended a number of public meetings in the region, I understood that this was to be a joint effort on behalf of all the political parties and economic interests, including trade unions, to fight to ensure that we maintain economic prosperity in the region. It now appears that is not the case but it is not too late for the amendment to be withdrawn. As Deputy Naughten said, we have been given information in answers to parliamentary questions which indicate that the ending of the Shannon gateway is not an imperative imposed on Ireland by the EU but appears to be the Minister's wish. He does not have to do this because of the negotiations in Europe, which was the first impression the Government attempted to give.

I appeal to Deputy Peter Power to withdraw his amendment and I appeal to the committee to support Deputy Shortall's motion. This committee has power to put real pressure on the Minister to take his time about making his decision and to ensure that he has the full economic impact of such a decision before him, prior to making such a crucial decision concerning the economic life not just of the mid-west region but also of large parts of the west generally. We do need regional balance because we have a very unbalanced country as it is. It would be good for both west and east to maintain what balance there is. As we saw from the figures provided by Shannon Development, there is very little balance in terms of access to this country when it comes to the UK and other parts of Europe. We have some balance as regards access by air from the United States and we want to maintain that balance in the interests of all of Ireland.

The case for the motion has been well made by previous speakers so I will not go into it in any great detail. The motion is both straightforward and reasonable I would have thought that all members of the committee could support it. It does not tie the hands of the Minister in relation to the decision in any way. It simply asks that an economic analysis should be undertaken before a decision is made. One would have thought that would be a prerequisite for any future decision. There are other issues relating to the dual gateway situation.

I would ask the proposer and seconder of the amendment to consider withdrawing it. I have a two-fold difficulty with it. First, it does not say anything particular and does not commit the Minister to doing anything. Second, of its nature, it indicates to me that a rush decision is either on the way or, worse still, may have been made already but not yet committed to paper.

The motion is reasonable and I would ask the proposers of the amendment to withdraw it and allow the committee to be unanimous about this logical motion.

I am not withdrawing the amendment. I reject out of hand the comments of Deputy Pat Breen that the amendment has no substance or, indeed, is vacuous. We ask our committee colleagues to agree to a simple proposition - this is the central point. We are asking our colleagues to agree with us that the committee will support the commitment made by the Minister and the Government that in any bilateral or multilateral negotiations, no changes will occur until the Minister and the Government are fully satisfied that Shannon has an equal or greater volume of aviation business available to it. That is a very simple statement and proposition.

US strategy.

It is regrettable that my colleagues, both on the committee and in the mid-west area, are not prepared to sign up to a very simple commitment. When one looks at Deputy Shortall's motion in that light, it is mischievous and disingenuous.

It purports to stir up people's fears in what are going to be difficult negotiations.

Deputy Power should know about that.

It is open to my colleagues to disagree with the Government's commitment not to enter into any agreement which would lessen Shannon's business. If they are not prepared to sign up to that, well and good. I hope people will take note of that. Sometimes, however, I wonder if the people who have spoken in favour of the motion are living in the real world. They have not faced the reality that international aviation is changing rapidly. It is accelerating at a pace which is even quicker than the deregulation and liberalisation of European airlines from the mid-980s to the mid-1990s. None of the Opposition comments I have heard today faced the plain fact that there is going to be wholesale liberalisation. We can, as some suggest, stick our heads in the sand and hope the dual gateway can be maintained on a one for one basis. Some hope and pray for that. Our amendment recognises the reality that this will not happen in the context of a new European-American open aviation agreement. One or other of the propositions can be accepted. We are inviting the committee to agree with us that a liberalised market will happen and that we must prepare for it. Every comment I have heard at this meeting is based on the negative. We must face the reality that liberalisation will happen and we must prepare for it.

The Deputy should face the facts.

While we can agree about other things, the indisputable fact is that there will be a new European-American aviation agreement.

In three years' time.

So be it. However, the Deputy is not agreeing with us that we should prepare the groundwork in the mid-west, especially in the Shannon region, to increase business to the area. We hope our amendment will be accepted and form the basis of the motion to be agreed by the committee. It proposes that even in the event of such an agreement, we will not agree to a diminution in the business of Shannon Airport. It is disappointing that my constituency colleagues in the mid-west are not prepared to agree to that simple proposition.

A number of Deputies have suggested that we are rushing decisions. That is not the case. We welcome an economic study and are sure that it will be available before any decisions are made. A fairly long time span is involved. To raise fears among members of the public that there will be a change to the status of Shannon over the summer is scaremongering for political benefit and is something I reject.

In proposing the amendment and in the hope that my colleagues will agree to it, we consider it to be right and proper that the Minister should enter negotiations with all parties, including the interest groups in Shannon, before any decisions are made. We have facilitated the Minster by inviting various groups to attend the committee. In proposing the amendment, I repeat my disappointment that my colleagues cannot agree to a single proposition that any agreement will not diminish the business coming into Shannon.

The motion does not indicate how long the study will take to complete. I do not know if members want a decision foisted upon us or whether we should take action. It will not be for the committee to make the final decision when the study is completed. At that point will the committee accept, reject, note it or tell the Minister he should not proceed? The amendment makes clear that the Government should not make a decision unless it means greater business for the Shannon region.

It does not say that.

It notes the Minister's stated commitment that he will not agree to any changes until he is fully satisfied that Shannon has an equal or greater volume of aviation business.

That is not the Minister's position.

The amendment calls for an economic study to be undertaken. Deputy Peter Power rightly said the world is changing fast. Not long ago, members of the committee considered the possibility that Aer Lingus might collapse whereas today the company has saved itself. We would have berated it had it not taken the necessary action in that regard. In this amendment we are trying to take action to assist Aer Lingus to bring more business in and out of the country. This is a pro-business amendment and will assist Shannon in the long-term.

I am delighted there is such cross-party support for Shannon Airport. It follows on the excellent presentation to the committee last week by members of a group from the mid-west that has as its aim the best interests of Shannon Airport and the region. I am delighted at the somewhat belated support for the Shannon region. It is unfortunate that not long ago the same level of cross-party support was not forthcoming. The Government's decision to allow US military aircraft to land at Shannon Airport during the Iraqi crisis drew the wrath of the Opposition parties.

That is a different issue. Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

Had the Government not allowed the military aircraft to land at Shannon Airport, not only the airport but the entire mid-west region would have suffered greatly considering the huge level of foreign investment——

On a point of order, the Senator should confine his comments to the proposed motion.

Deputy Shortall, with due respect, I gave all members as much latitude as possible.

The other members spoke to the motion.

With due respect, Deputy Shortall, this is related to Shannon Airport and Senator Dooley will be allowed speak within very wide parameters. He will be allowed the same latitude I allowed you.

If the members of the Opposition were prepared to listen they would realise that what I have to say is complimentary because I recognise their change of heart and their support for Shannon.

The Senator should speak to the motion and stop talking nonsense.

Allow Senator Dooley to continue without interruption.

I welcome that shift by the Opposition. It is very important that both sides have come together on this issue. Across the political divide in the mid-west region there is a recognition that any changes to the ownership or structure of Shannon Airport, or to any of the bilateral arrangements in operation there, will have profound implications. There is no doubt change is on the way, which is a cause of great concern to me and other members from the mid-west. I am pleased so many of them are present to debate the issue because it illustrates the importance they attach to it.

I welcome the decision by the group who attended the committee last week to sponsor an economic impact study because, unfortunately, hitherto there has been much loose talk with few facts to back up the implications of change. Any decision by the committee to encumber the Minister will be of little benefit because he is not answerable to the committee but to Dáil Éireann. My stated commitment is to the mid-west region and I want to ensure that if there are changes, the future viability, not only of Shannon is protected, but also the jobs, businesses and industry in the region.

The motion does not seek to do that because it has no capacity to encumber the Minister. It is merely aspirational. The amendment sets out the current position. It recognises the Minister's stated commitment.

It says nothing.

The motion says very little.

Why is the Senator afraid of an independent economic assessment?

My only concern is the likely impact of potential change on Shannon and the mid-west region. The motion has no capacity to prevent that. Members of the Opposition have failed to put their words into action.

The Senator's party is in government. It can act on its decisions.

When it was debated in the Dáil and a decision was being taken that could have destroyed the entire mid-west region, it was not that their support was lacking. Their support was not there.

What is the Senator talking about?

The Deputy knows well what I am talking about. I am talking about the landing of military aircraft in Shannon which was not supported.

That is a red herring. The Senator should speak to the motion.

The Deputy knows that had that decision not been taken, Shannon Airport would have closed. The people who were here last week said that. She knows that and she remained quiet. It is disingenuous of her to come in here today and dilly-dally with motions that have no real effect.

My colleague's performance reminds me of Comical Ali. If he wants to bring the Gulf War into it, the simple fact is that Shannon Airport, as far as I am aware, did not gain any financial benefit from having aircraft landing there, although they did pay for refuelling. Senator Dooley and I happened to be in New York around the same time.

On a point of information, it is factually incorrect to say that Shannon Airport did not derive an economic benefit from the events from January this year, that is, the stopover of America military aircraft refuelling in Shannon.

The taxpayer paid the charges. The taxpayer paid for American military aircraft.

Deputy Shortall, you have interrupted practically everyone on this side of the House who tried to speak.

What about your colleague? You did not stop him when he interrupted.

Excuse me, Deputy Shortall. The problem is you have interrupted every member on this side of the House. Nobody interrupted you. It is very unfair of you to interrupt everyone making a point.

The point I was trying to make was that Senator Dooley is creating the impression that Shannon gained millions by having the aircraft landing there. That is not correct. They did not pay landing charges. They would have gained from refuelling and duty free.

Unfortunately the Government's inaction regarding the security of Shannon, and the fact that protesters were allowed to breach the lax security barriers and that those images were broadcast all over the world, did huge damage to the tourism sector. Senator Dooley and I were in New York recently and that was relayed back to us.

I do not believe there was any tangible overall benefit when you allow for the fact that the taxpayer was also subsidising it to some extent and I challenge Senator Dooley at a future date to provide the figures to show exactly how much we gained from having the aircraft landing at Shannon. If he wants to open up a wider debate on the benefits of it, they have not discovered any weapons of mass destruction and they have not removed Saddam Hussein. We do not know exactly where Saddam Hussein is and we do not know with whom he is, and God knows what will happen in the future. Certainly there are major questions to be asked about the so-called intelligence gathering which was the basis of that information. It is disingenuous of Senator Dooley to stray into that area. Today's motion is about a different issue, the Shannon area.

Thank you, Chairman, for allowing me the opportunity to respond. The only source I quote would be the business community in the mid-west region who are ably represented by many groups. It is clear from what they say, and from the discussions they have had with investors and chief executives of American companies in the mid-west region, that the fact that Ireland was seen to facilitate the US at a time when the landing rights at Shannon were requested has improved immensely our image in terms of the capacity for foreign investment.

One talks about what we have gained. I am talking about what we have not lost as a result of that. While it is not quantifiable in numbers, I am sure Deputy Breen, who is about to contribute, will be happy to recognise that the same has been said to both him and me at a number of meetings in the mid-west region.

The debate has been side-tracked completely by the Gulf War issue. This is not about the Gulf War. This is about the future of Shannon Airport as a gateway. Deputy Power made mention of the facts. Transatlantic business to Ireland has grown from under one million people in 1993 to 1.5 million people this year and it is growing all the time. It is growing because it is the gateway. We are placed highest in the European table. Our growth, at 5%, is higher than that of any other country. That is the reality. The facts are straightforward, that the current bilateral agreement has been good for Ireland and it should stay that way until something better is found. Deputy Shortall's motion, which was seconded by me, is straightforward. Leave it this way. Let us do the impact study. When it is completed let us see.

Members were talking about the US-EU open skies agreement. That is down the road. We are talking about an existing situation where the Department of Transport officials have had discussions with the US authorities in recent times on the current bilateral agreement. The Minister has acknowledged that. That has to do with the case Aer Lingus is pushing to open up new gateways to the US, particularly in San Francisco and Orlando, where they want to serve Dublin only.

Deputy Breen, with all due respect, you are repeating what you said earlier.

Those are the facts. The motion is straightforward and clear.

I was very interested to hear what Deputy Breen said. In the central part of his contribution, he said something which everybody should pick up on. He put his finger on it. He said that the Irish-US bilateral agreement is in place until something better comes along. By definition, he is supporting what we are saying in paragraph 2 of our amendment, that the Government should not do anything until something better comes along. Therefore we aread idem on that and he agrees with what is stated in paragraph 2.

No, I am not. I am talking about——

At this late stage I would ask Deputy Breen to recognise that, support our side and agree with our amendment.

No. I am talking about the current bilateral agreement.

Is the amendment to the motion agreed?

I am putting the amendment: "That the amendment be made."

May I speak again?

Sorry, I have put the question. With all due respect, Deputy Shortall, you had not intimated to me that you wished to speak, therefore I put the question.

It is standard practice to bring back the proposer of a motion.

I have no problem with allowing you two minutes.

I was replying to Deputy Breen on a small point.

Deputy Power, I have told Deputy Shortall that I would give her the last say. As she is the proposer of the original motion, she is entitled to get that and I would appreciate if she was not interrupted.

Thank you, Chairman. The motion we are proposing here is reasonable by any account. We are not seeking to tie the Minister's hand in any way. We are not seeking to change policy. We are simply saying that we need to assess the likely impact of any change in policy before such change takes place.

Deputy Power invites us to accept the Minister's commitment. I really think that is a bit rich given the huge number of pre-election commitments that were made and broken.

When Labour lose every public policy argument, they talk about broken promises.

Deputy Shortall, we are dealing with a specific motion and other matters do not arise.

Could I speak without interruption, please?

Deputy Shortall, speak to the motion or something that is relevant to Shannon.

I am speaking to the motion.

She is not speaking to it. She wants to rerun the general election.

Would you kindly stop being partisan, Chairman?

If you want to deviate from that——

I am speaking to the motion. Would you please allow me to speak without interruption?

With all due respect, Deputy Shortall, you moved a long way from the motion and what was said 12 or 18 months ago. Either you speak to the motion or I will put the amendment.

I do not think members of this committee, and certainly the people of the mid-west, are prepared to accept vague commitments from anybody in respect of their future. The motion seeks to carry out a full assessment of the likely economic impact of any change in policy and that is all we are asking people to support. The suggestion, made by Senator Dooley in his bleeding heart performance, is that the discussions taking place between the Minister and other interests will lead us somewhere. Such discussions can only lead to a situation which would be detrimental to Shannon. There are serious US pressures to eliminate the Shannon stopover. There are serious pressures from Aer Lingus to end the stopover. Before the Minister becomes unduly influenced by such pressures, he should take his time and give due consideration to the likely impact of change on the mid-west region in order to demonstrate that he is serious about balanced economic development and that he has listened to the good case made by the delegation who attended last week. The amendment is meaningless, as it seeks to get people who should be committed to the mid-west region and supportive of the delegation off the hook. They have proposed this long, rambling amendment which means nothing and will do nothing to address the concerns the people of the mid-west. I reject the amendment and I ask members to be sensible and support the motion.

Amendment put.
The Joint Committee divided: Tá, 8; Níl, 6.

  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Dempsey, Tony.
  • Dooley, Tim.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • Morrissey, Tom.
  • Power, Peter.

Níl

  • Breen, Pat.
  • Browne, Feargal.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Shortall, Roisín.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried .