I am speaking on this Bill for the record. I hope that if my time is tight, the Acting Chairman will allow me to make my case and my points. I brought this Bill to Seanad Éireann as Minister for Public Enterprise, a fact to which Senator Higgins kindly referred. I remember it very vividly. One of my faults is that I have a good memory, which is currently proving a little uncomfortable.
When I brought this Bill to the House, everyone was full of high hopes because the future of Aer Lingus looked good, as it now does again, thankfully. The Bill will soon be on its merry way to Dáil Éireann. Just after the Bill was introduced, an international economic decline followed and then came the disastrous events of September 2001 which, as we all know, wrought devastation on airlines in particular and on all those who lost their lives, which none of us can forget. Large airlines tumbled disastrously. I remember the gloom which infected the entire airline industry. I recall perhaps half a dozen meetings in Brussels with Madame de Palacio and her firm statement — to say it was obdurate would be extreme — that not one euro or penny could go into Aer Lingus.
I distinctly remember the ensuing months during which there were tense meetings between me, my officials, the unions, the management, the Taoiseach and the Cabinet. The Taoiseach and I, in particular, kept in contact on a daily basis on the matter. If ever there was a time when close co-operation among everyone concerned would bring desired results, it was then. Everybody combined to save Aer Lingus.
Interestingly in August 2001, the Taoiseach and I had many telephone conversations about a new chairman. Sadly, Mr. Bernie Cahill had passed away and we had all gone to Cork to his funeral. Between the two of us, it was decided that we would approach Mr. Tom Mulcahy. I approached him, as did the Secretary General of my Department, and he said he would think about it over the weekend. We were coming to the end of August 2001. He thought about and agreed to become chairman. Nobody has paid tribute in the right way to the chairman of Aer Lingus who is a wonderful person. Nobody reads or hears about Tom Mulcahy or hears him, but he is doing a proper job as chairman. In the tense months between September and December of that year, he came into my office on a daily basis to report to me and I, in turn, would report to Cabinet. As he came in the door, he would always sing "If I knew then what I know now". Unfortunately, due to the events of September 2001, Aer Lingus was going down the tubes. He always said I must have had seventh sense to get him before it all happened.
Due tribute has been paid to Willie Walsh who was employed by Aer Lingus. The Minister or the Government of the day did not have any say in that. He is a wonderful chief executive whom I met on several occasions. Aer Lingus interviewed him and took him on. The chief executive and the chairman are a marvellous combination. Tom Mulcahy is a quiet man, a man of acumen and of keen financial views who has been able to steer Aer Lingus on to a straight path. Willie Walsh is not a bit afraid to take on anyone and to express his point of view and to ensure it holds weight.
October, November and December 2001 were tense months in the capital. As I said, there were daily meetings and telephone conversations between me and the Taoiseach. I have always admired how we worked together in that particular period. If we had not done so, if the workers of Aer Lingus had not decided it was their company and they were going to save it, which they did, and if the chairman, his board and Willie Walsh had not all worked together with the backbenchers in our party in what was a huge act of combined patriotism, it would not have been possible to bring that company out of what seemed to be a terminal spiral of decline and into a viable situation. I do not think that story has been written enough or that sufficient credit has been paid to all those people of whom I have spoken regarding what they have done for their company.
Sadly, it was necessary to seek 2,000 voluntary redundancies. It was not at all like the voluntary redundancy the late Bernie Cahill had been able to introduce in the early 1990s — in fact, it was approximately half that amount. We had to get over that huge chasm. Everyday I would get the numbers of people who had opted for voluntary redundancy, and I have such high regard for one of the officials here today for the way she handled that crisis along with me and others. I would telephone the Taoiseach to say how many had opted for it. It continued that way until, sadly, we had more than 2,000 people. I wish everybody could be employed; I am not at all in the business of cutting jobs. It is the wrong attitude to have, but it was necessary if we were to save Aer Lingus. In the end, it was done with decency and civility and with a proper sense of dignity about the people who were at the centre of it all. That was followed swiftly by all sorts of other events.
My husband had died a few months earlier and I travelled to the US with two women friends for a ten day visit. We were three days there when the disaster happened. I left and went to Brussels to a meeting. Of course, a particular airline person made much of that and of what it cost to bring me back. Thankfully, the EU paid for it, but that is a side issue. Only for the courage and the bravery of all concerned in the cameo of that three month period, we would not be here discussing this matter.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid. I have always had such regard for him. When we were in Cabinet together, we were friends. I noticed he said that the Government decided on 23 October 2001 to facilitate private sector investment. He went on to state that the Government decided on 16 September 2003 to facilitate private sector investment. Two years later, this echoes the Government memorandum I brought to Cabinet and on which a decision was taken. I stress there are people who, through no fault of their own, are not eligible for the ESOP arrangement as the Bill was not introduced in the House on time. I strongly urge that their needs be addressed. They have been in contact with me and I feel a duty to work to see whether their needs can be addressed.
This is a fine Bill. It is the resurrection of a previous Bill and is in effect — if the Minister of State does not mind my saying so — my Bill with a few twirls and tweaks to it. It is amazing that I am here talking about a Bill I brought forward some time ago. It is bound up with that crisis. We worked hard to turn the situation in Aer Lingus around, and thankfully we did. The backbenchers were marvellous as were the other parties. There was the ritual "yahoo" "boo boo" in the Dáil from time to time but there was a great mingling of the various parties because they all wanted the same thing; they wanted the company to be saved. My husband was dead a couple of months and it is caught up in huge dramatic and traumatic time in my mind.
I was always satisfied with the level of work and commitment obtained from everybody during that crisis point in the history of Aer Lingus. It will occupy a good chapter in my book. In that way, the events of this time will be shown for what they were. I often think people who go through particular periods, like the workers in Aer Lingus did at that time, should get due regard. The chairman is a great person — the best for that job. They say times throw up the person and that was the case with Mr. Mulcahy, the chief executive and all the others. However, it was the people on the ground who saved the company. Again, not enough regard has been given to the comradeship which flourished during those dark days and months.
That is my input into the legislation. I pay tribute to the two officials here today. Both of them were active in the Department during that period. I always had great faith in their competence and in the way matters were directed. I felt we were all sailing in the good ship enterprise, except in this case it was the good flight enterprise and I hoped it would eventually come to a decent landing. Now Aer Lingus is leaner, fitter and has a better website than that of another person whom we shall not name. Aer Lingus does not do people down by injurious advertisements or by shouting, bragging and roaring. It goes about its business and it has become financially solvent and successful again.