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Minister Simon Coveney.

Coveney defends record of support for Shannon Airport

Foreign Minister open to full-time role for Padraig Ó Ceidigh in Shannon Group, writes Dan Danaher

FOREIGN Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has defended the government’s record on supporting Shannon Airport in the wake of claims it could be doing more to assist the Shannon Group and airport from the havoc wreaked by Covid-19.

“This has been a devastating period for the aviation industry. The Shannon region is so impacted by the activity or the non-activity in the airport.

“We have seen this in Cork Airport too, but more so in Shannon because of the linkage between the connectivity at the airport and so many businesses in a very wide radius of the airport.

“Transatlantic traffic has collapsed because the US has effectively banned EU citizens from flying to the US. For a period US citizens were not allowed into Ireland either without Covid-19 certification,” he said.

Although Pádraig Ó Céidigh is being appointed as part-time non executive chair of Shannon Group, Mr Ó Céidigh has said he would make himself available for a full-time role.

Asked about suggestions to appoint Pádraig O’Céidigh on a full time basis, Minister Coveney said in an interview with The Clare Champion he would be guided by Mr O’Céidigh on this issue.

“Mr O’Céidigh is someone I know well. I believe he is a very good appointment. He understands business, aviation, he is very motivated and cares passionately about the West of Ireland and the Mid-West. He ticks a lot of boxes and is an experienced person.”

As far as the Cork Deputy is aware, Mr O’Céidigh hasn’t asked the government to be appointed on a full time basis.

If Mr O’Céidigh presented a case for a full time appointment, the minister said he is sure the government would seriously examine it, subject to approval from Transport Minister Eamon Ryan.

Minister Coveney said the Shannon Group is in good hands with Mr O’Céidigh as chairman before acknowledging the group had a lot of work to do.

He confirmed in the first half of next month the US will remove its ban on EU citizens flying to the US except in exceptional circumstances. Describing this as a big opportunity for Shannon
Airport to position itself again as a transatlantic hub for increased traffic, he expects this will happen.

He stressed the importance of keeping the Heathrow slots in and out of Shannon for Aer Lingus is another key driver for economic activity.

“I have a lot of faith in Padraig O’Céidigh and there are a lot of other experienced people in the group as well. Shannon Group does get listened to by government and senior politicians.

“Shannon Airport and the economy it sustains and drives in the Mid-West is understood by government, which will take the appropriate action.

“The amount of money that was announced in the Budget for airports outside of Dublin was a significant package. This is a reminder, if people needed it, the government is aware of the challenges and frustrations that Shannon Airport and Shannon Group have had and the need to support them.”

The government has been criticised for not adopting a greater role for antigen testing to facilitate more international travel.

However, Minister Coveney insisted the government made the right decision in sticking with PCR testing because it is more accurate than antigen testing.

“Most countries rely on PCR testing, with antigen testing used as a back up. The government has made it clear it will facilitate a greater use of antigen testing from now on.

“We can do this in the knowledge 93% of Irish people are vaccinated. One of the biggest risks for Ireland was internation travel in terms of introducing Covid-19 and new variants.

“We had to rely on a testing system that was as accurate as possible. We know that PCR testing works. NPHET were very strong on this issue. It hasn’t been perfect and we have made mistakes during the pandemic.

“But on the key judgement calls in terms of vaccination, testing and tracing, the NPHET advice has been very good and strong.”

Asked if other measures could be introduced to fast-track the recovery of Shannon Airport, the minister said the government will spends tens of millions of Euro marketing Ireland abroad.

“We want tourist and business traffic to come to Ireland as soon it is safe to do so. Pre-bookings for next year are encouraging. US travellers are looking at Ireland and Italy to book holidays for next year. This is very encouraging for Shannon because a lot of US travellers want to come to the West of Ireland.”

He said the government can continue to support Shannon by investing in capital infrastructure and significant resources into marketing Ireland.

With 96% of all passengers coming through Dublin Airport pre-Covid-19, there have been calls for a proper aviation policy to assist airports like Shannon.

He pointed out the Shannon Group has successfully courted Ryanair to create new routes and increase passenger numbers.

“I am a big believer in trying to grow international traffic in airports outside of Dublin. You can’t legislate for it or tell an airline where they should fly into. You can incentivise airports, which is why Shannon is getting a lot of support.”

Deputy Cathal Crowe has criticised the government’s decision to send Minister Coveney and Minister of State Jack Chambers to an interdenominational service in Armagh this Thursday, which President Michael D Higgins has decided not to attend. (see story here)

However, Minister Coveney claimed “Cathal Crowe is wrong and the Taoiseach is very clear on that”.

“I am attending because the government has asked me to. If we are serious about a shared island and building bridges with people who have a different perspective on history in Ireland, we should be able to stand in the same church and reflect on the division and hurt of the last 100 years that has come from partition.”

“I think this can be the start of reconciliation and learning to live together. I would like to see reunification at some point in the future, but we have to learn to live with each other and respect differences of opinion.”

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