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Tuesday 21 November 2017

ESB strikes looming despite government U-turn on sale

Anne-Marie Walsh and Fiach Kelly

STRIKES are looming at the ESB despite a government U-turn on its plan to sell a minority stake in the company.

A major union has threatened to ballot for industrial action over new proposals that may mean the sale of power plants employing hundreds of staff.

UNITE vowed to fight any "break up" of the company after Public Reform Minister Brendan Howlin announced the state assets to go under the hammer. Industrial relations at the ESB are already on a knife-edge after talks over payroll cuts of €140m collapsed before Christmas.

Mr Howlin yesterday confirmed that a government plan to sell a minority stake in the ESB, which was announced last year, is now off the table -- and will be for the lifetime of the Coalition.

But in a vague statement, he said "some of ESB's non-strategic power generation capacity" is for sale, which may include its power stations.

The ESB has 13 major power stations at home and abroad, including Moneypoint, Coolkeeragh, Dublin Bay Power, Aghada, Poolbeg, Corby in the UK and Amorebieta in Spain.

Fears are also growing for 485 jobs at Bord Gais Energy, valued at up to €1.4bn, which is the centrepiece of the Government's sales plan in the event of outsourcing by a potential buyer.

The Government is also selling forestry agency Coillte's trees, but not its land, and the State's 25pc stake in Aer Lingus if the price is right. A number of suitors have been touted for the airline, including Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Qatar Airways.

The Government now faces an uphill battle to find buyers without accepting bargain basement prices. It must raise €3bn by selling the assets in order to meet demands from the IMF-ECB-EU bailout team.


Selling elements of the energy companies will make up most of this amount, although the Government will not say exactly how much.

Mr Howlin said €1bn of the money raised will be re-invested in the economy to create jobs. However, no money can be used in this way until at least €1bn of assets have been sold -- a 'trigger' agreed between the Government and the troika.

Mr Howlin claimed this as a victory, since the initial proposal was for all money raised to go towards paying down our debt.

The bailout team had demanded at least €2bn worth in assets sales, and the extra €1bn agreed will go toward job creation.

But last night, UNITE vowed to fight the sale of any of the ESB's parts using every means at its disposal.

"Once we know more detail we will, if needed, hold a ballot for industrial action," said regional secretary Jimmy Kelly.

"We are fundamentally opposed to the fire sale of state assets in order to mistakenly right the wrongs of the banking disaster," he said.

He said there was no consistency in the last or present Government's stance on the issue.

The country's largest union, SIPTU, which also represents ESB staff, condemned the Labour Party and the Government for the sell-off.

David Begg, of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said the plan was a bad deal and could see the country lose control over the national energy sector -- and said it was the "slippery slope of privatisation".

Irish Independent

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