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Sunday 19 November 2017

Fine Gael will back sale of State assets

Daniel McConnell, John Drennan and Ronald Quinlan

EAMON Ryan's attempt to bring down Colm McCarthy's privatisation report before its implementation has even begun has been branded as "peculiar" and "totally at odds" with his own Government's policy by Michael Noonan.

Fine Gael's finance spokesman said yesterday he was in favour of selling off State assets. He said Ireland could no longer pay for inefficient state monopolies and that 40,000 public sector jobs would have to be cut.

"It is a very peculiar situation when you have a minister trying to pre-empt a government-commissioned report. It is totally out of kilter with his own Government's policy. He has a habit of speaking freely and saying things that are in conflict with what the Government is saying."

Eamon Ryan spoke last week of his opposition to the privatisation of State assets that he said were "delivering", including the ESB, Bord Gais and An Post.

"I don't think it does make sense in relation to the likes of ESB and Bord Gais to disrupt what's working well," he said.

Mr Ryan said that while he would discuss the matter with the assets review group appointed last week by Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, his arguments "should and will prevail".

Mr Ryan said there was "a very healthy debate" between Fianna Fail and the Greens over the decision to appoint a three-man team headed by Colm McCarthy to investigate the sale of State assets.

"It isn't the brightest of times to be selling things," Mr Ryan told the Sunday Independent. "It makes sense if something is working to leave it alone."

In contrast, Mr Noonan said: "I favour privatisation. I don't see any point in holding on to State companies in monopoly situations if the private sector can do it as efficiently or more efficiently -- particularly when we are stretched, as we are.


"However, I wouldn't want to sell them off at the bottom of the market and we are at the bottom at the moment.

"But Colm McCarthy is commissioned and I have a great respect for him. We await his report.

"I know as an economist where he is coming from, he would have little reluctance in suggesting they should be sold off." He added: "Yes, I favour privatisation."

In the interview, Mr Noonan also said that €3bn in cuts in the Budget would not be enough and that he had seen real poverty re-emerging in Ireland because of the recession.

Infighting has already broken out between Fianna Fail and the Greens over the proposed sale of assets, such as Bord Gais, which is said to be worth €3.5bn.

But Minister Ryan is confident that the current tug of war "is not a walking-out matter" and that the "persistence" of the Greens will carry the battle. He also claimed that any firesale of Irish semi-states would have a serious impact on the Government's battle to maintain employment in the country.

Minister Ryan said semi-state companies -- such as Bord Gais, the ESB, Eirgrid, Bord na Mona and Coillte -- will be engaged in a €30bn investment over the next decade.

"That is a lot of spending and I would be very slow to jeopardise it " said Mr Ryan.

However, the Green minister did warn the highly paid CEOs of the semi-states -- most of whom earn more than the Taoiseach -- that when it comes to salaries and bonuses, the extent of the current crisis means: "CEO pay, everything, is under review."

Mr Ryan has also received support from the former Fianna Fail finance minister Ray MacSharry.

"The quick answer is that it's not the right time to be selling anything with the way the markets are around the world at the moment, not just in Ireland but worldwide," he said yesterday.

"The first thing that I did in the Eighties was to get all of the State companies in and see if they could contribute to employment.

"Therefore, you had some controls there in terms of any help you could give them through the State, so that they would go out there and do what is the priority at the moment, which is to create jobs.

"My first approach if I had anything to do with it at the moment would be to call them all in and demand that they increase the numbers of people employed in one way or another, however they do it."

The former chief executive of the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA), Dr Michael Somers, also questioned the wisdom of selling the 'family jewels' to deal with the current budget deficit.

He asked: "I know we're stuck with a large budget deficit but is it wise to sell the family jewels to deal with an issue of current spending and income? Once you sell them, you can never get them back again.

"However, that's not to say these state companies couldn't be run more efficiently."

Sunday Independent

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