PROPOSED job losses and the shrinking of its transatlantic operations at Shannon has, for many people in this region, pointed to Aer Lingus’ lack of any serious commitment to the airport.
Now evidence has emerged in a most unexpected fashion of Aer Lingus’ efforts to undermine Shannon stretching back almost 20 years. The loss of the airport’s sole transatlantic gateway status was a political hot potato in the early 1990s and even then, Shannon supporters believed that Aer Lingus, at Dublin level, didn’t exactly rally to the Shannon cause.
The claims and accusations that Aer Lingus acted against Shannon interests before the change to give Dublin a 50-50 share of US flights in 1993 was implemented, were at all times vigorously denied by the airline.
A member of Limerick City Council, Diarmuid Scully, stunned members of the Mid-West Regional Authority last week when he outlined his experiences during seasonal holiday work with Aer Lingus in New York and London in the years immediately before the loss of the Shannon stopover.
He claimed that in New York in 1991, when bookings came through from travel agents and operators, Dublin was to be given precedence over Shannon so that numbers travelling to Dublin were beefed up, thereby supporting the airline’s case for the Shannon stop in each direction to be removed.
It was common practice, he said, that travellers destined for Limerick would be flown to Dublin and back-tracked to Shannon because travel agents or tour operators had no idea where Limerick was located.
This certainly challenges the thrust of a December 1991 document in which the then group chief executive at Aer Lingus, Cathal Mullan, said Shannon had nothing to fear.
“Concern that a change in the (stopover) rule would, over a period, lead to a significant reduction in transatlantic service at Shannon is seriously misplaced,” Mr Mullan stated.
Giving a commitment to year-round direct daily connections between Shannon and New York, he also stated that concession of direct US flights into Dublin would only apply to the New York and the then proposed Los Angeles services.
While working with Aer Lingus in London in 1992, Mr Kelly says that, on his very first day, he was approached and asked to sign a petition calling for the Shannon stopover to be abolished. The approach did not come from a manager or supervisor but from the trade union shop steward.
In February ’92, the late Dr Brendan O’Regan arranged a secret meeting in Heathrow Airport between representatives of the Shannon lobby groups and the airline chief executive, Cathal Mullan and the Shannon manager, Tom McInerney. Aer Lingus was again contending that the end of the Shannon stopover rule could “grow business to the advantage of all including Shannon”. Other assurances included that Shannon would be guaranteed year-round daily service, with the New York service turning around at Shannon.
Aer Lingus’ role at Shannon has diminished dramatically in the intervening years with services and staff reduced. One constant, however, has been an uneasy relationship between the airline at top management level and airport staff and trade unions as well as airport supporters throughout the region. With what lies ahead, thing are likely to get worse.
The Seanad debate
FINE Gael leader, Enda Kenny, went out on a limb over the weekend when he declared, as party policy, a commitment to abolish Seanad Éireann, subject to the will of the Irish people in a referendum.
Mr Kenny caught many of his own parliamentary party members flat-footed when, at the high-profile presidential dinner on Saturday night, he said he would press ahead with a plan to abolish the Seanad as part of a programme of political reform, should he lead the next government.
Leaving aside all the political and philosophical reasons for doing this, Mr Kenny struck a chord with the vast majority of people in this country when he said that the abolition of the Upper House, in addition to reducing the number of TDs by 20, would effect a saving of €150 million to the exchequer over the lifetime of a Dáil term. That’s quite a bundle of money that could be spent in areas such as health, education or community projects.
A proposal of this nature, while unnerving the political establishment, could well curry favour with an electorate that is largely mystified as to the need for two houses of the Oireachtas and the role of the Seanad.
Under the present system of electing members to the Seanad, the vast majority of Irish voters have no say.
Seanad Éireann has 60 members. An electorate that includes incoming TDs, outgoing senators and around 1,000 county and city councillors elects 43 senators to five panels representing vocational interests. Graduates of Trinity College and the NUI elect six members, while the remaining 11 are nominees of the Taoiseach. What this means is that while independent of the Dáil, the Seanad is always weighted in favour of the government of the day.
Seanad Éireann can initiate and revise legislation but under the Constitution, its legislative role is restricted in that it cannot initiate financial legislation and can only make recommendations but not amendments to such Bills. The fact that a Dáil Bill must also be examined by members of the Seanad is a safeguard against legislation being enacted too hastily. However, the House cannot delay indefinitely legislation, which has already been passed by the Dáil.
While many senators have dedicated their entire political careers to working in the Seanad, for quite a few, it is seen as an opportunity to advance their careers in politics. Others there include former TDs on a downward spiral or those who are beneficiaries of a reward culture.
The expansion of the committee system in the Dáil in recent years certainly raises the question as to why the work of the Seanad cannot be dealt with at this level.
Subjected to criticism from many politicians for his proposal, including some from within his own party, Mr Kenny could be accused of playing a populist card at a time when the Government is under relentless pressure. He has re-ignited a debate that has been skirted about on and off over a long number of years.
Mr Kenny could be taking a calculated risk on this issue. It will be part of a Fine Gael election manifesto that will have a lot to say about ways to spend money more efficiently. The electorate will decide on the sum of the many parts at the next General Election.
Enda Kenny will have to become Taoiseach before he can make the next move.