Coughlan caves in
Minister forced into U-turn over meeting with O'Leary as 300 jobs on line
TANAISTE Mary Coughlan was last night forced into a humiliating climbdown in the jobs controversy with Ryanair's Michael O'Leary.
She finally caved in to intense pressure to meet Mr O'Leary about his offer to provide 300 airport jobs -- after earlier insisting she would not.
The Employment Minister confirmed that she would meet him at 7pm today after a bitter war of words was played out in the media.
However, the embarrassing U-turn undermined Ms Coughlan's authority and will fuel growing criticism over her ability to do her job.
The Tanaiste had earlier insisted she would "certainly not" be calling the Ryanair chief executive.
Ms Coughlan said she was only willing to meet him if the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) was also present.
But the minister was forced to back down after Mr O'Leary gave a series of television and radio interviews in which he questioned her commitment to saving the jobs.
In a statement released last night, Ms Coughlan said she would meet Mr O'Leary today without any pre-conditions after public criticism of her stance from unemployed aircraft maintenance workers and opposition parties.
"We'll be making him an offer; we want the jobs in Dublin and we'll go to whatever lengths we can to do that," a spokesman for Ms Coughlan said.
Ms Coughlan last night claimed she did not come under pressure from Taoiseach Brian Cowen to meet Mr O'Leary.
"Mr O'Leary wants the Tanaiste to meet him, she'll meet him no problem. Her decision and her decision only," the spokesman added.
Despite the apparent 11th-hour breakthrough, Mr O'Leary will be told today that the Government cannot meet his demand for Aer Lingus to be moved out of the Hangar 6 site in Dublin Airport to allow his company to create 300 aircraft maintenance jobs there.
The reason is that Aer Lingus has a 20-year lease.
But he will be offered the opportunity to locate the work in another empty hangar or to have a new hangar built.
There is also likely to be a financial incentive package in line with EU rules on state aid.
"Without a doubt, he will get the full supports, as if he was an American businessman or anyone else," her spokesman said.
The dramatic development came after Mr O'Leary sent two letters to Ms Coughlan yesterday demanding a meeting with her and also carried out a series of media interviews.
"Instead of wasting time fobbing us off on the Industrial Development Authority or the DAA, why don't you intervene in this personally, meet with me and give us a commitment that the Government will do what is necessary to win these jobs and this investment for Ireland," he wrote.
Earlier, a government source said Ms Coughlan was not willing to be "bullied" into meeting Mr O'Leary.
Ryanair has now opened a new aircraft maintenance base employing 200 people in Glasgow Prestwick Airport instead of Dublin Airport. It claims 300 more aircraft maintenance jobs could also go to two other European locations.
Mr O'Leary complained that Ms Coughlan had not facilitated his request to bypass negotiating with the DAA about the use of Hangar 6. He claimed the Tanaiste "couldn't be arsed" with his airline's interest in creating 500 jobs.
After announcing 200 of the jobs for Prestwick Airport, he revealed he would offer the remaining 300 elsewhere unless he got control of Hangar 6.
He said he revealed correspondence with the Government to highlight the Tanaiste's "incompetence".
"I don't think Mary Coughlan should resign," he said. "She should lift up the phone and call the DAA and sell us the hangar."
In her defence, Ms Coughlan said she had engaged IDA Ireland in the negotiations.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said last night that he had received a commitment from Mr O'Leary that by the end of the summer he would have 300 engineers working on heavy maintenance in Hanger 6.
"Here is a case where a major employer with a real interest in Ireland is prepared to tell me he will employ 300 engineers by the end of summer in heavy maintenance if the Taoiseach and Tanaiste will only show seriousness about this issue.
"And if Tanaiste Coughlan is paralysed and irrelevant to this conversation, perhaps the Taoiseach should take the bull by the horns and sort this out in the interest of highly paid jobs that are much more important than egos," he said.
But there is scepticism in government circles about Mr O'Leary's insistence on getting Hangar 6 in Dublin Airport as the base for the aircraft maintenance jobs. It is occupied by Aer Lingus line maintenance workers on a 20-year lease.
A government source said the loss of the hangar could damage the airline's operations and benefit Ryanair instead.
An Aer Lingus spokeswoman said the airline had no intention of leaving Hangar 6 and handing it over to its rival.
The DAA has offered to build a new hangar for Ryanair; however, the airline has rejected this proposal.