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I'm glad to see back of Bertie, says BA's Walsh

BRITISH Airways chief executive Willie Walsh hailed the departure of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern from Irish politics and welcomed the prospect of political change and reform in Ireland.

Mr Walsh also warned that what happened with Anglo Irish Bank was absolutely outrageous -- and he said wherever he travels in the world as an Irishman he is now asked about what happened in this country.

Mr Walsh said that when he left Ireland to work for BA in 2005, Ireland was ranked No 1 in the world for quality of life and economic performance.

However, he stressed that it was now time for Ireland to "stop looking back and looking for someone to blame" for what went wrong and move forward by supporting reform, renewal, enhanced competitiveness and greater support for Irish entrepreneurs.

"I am not a fan of Bertie Ahern and never was a fan of Bertie Ahern," he said. "I am glad to see him retiring from politics. I am, however, genuinely delighted to see Micheal Martin as new leader of Fianna Fail."

Mr Walsh made his comments as he delivered the keynote address to the 900-plus guests at the Cork Chamber of Commerce annual dinner.

The former Aer Lingus boss stressed that Ireland urgently needs to focus on the future, not the past, and boost its domestic tourism industry.

The BA boss said that a royal visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth II would prove a dramatic boost for the domestic tourism sector, particularly on the key UK market.

"I think a [royal] visit would make a very big difference -- I think it would put Ireland in the spotlight to millions of potential tourists in the UK. Personally, I would be delighted to see it."

Mr Walsh said there is enormous goodwill in the UK toward Ireland . "I know from talking to her [Queen Elizabeth II] on the occasions that I have met her that she has [an interest]. Indeed, Prince Charles recently visited the Irish Embassy in London -- the first member of the royal family to attend it. I was present and he made the point that a royal visit would be a great occasion.

"I think it would be a fantastic step forward -- it just puts us back in the spotlight and it demonstrates that as a country we have moved on.

"Tourism is a critical industry for us and anything that would help to promote that would make a big difference and a royal visit would make a big difference."

Mr Walsh pointed out that Ireland's tourism sector was very badly damaged by the introduction of the controversial €10 tourism tax -- and he said it was the central reason to why BA pulled out of the Irish market.

"I think it was wrong -- and I agree with Michael O'Leary on this. When the Government reduced it from €10 to €3 they should have scrapped it altogether.

"I argued against it when it was introduced -- it was a factor in the decision of BA to stop flying to Ireland.

"These taxes make a big difference and when tourism is such an important part of our industry, to tax that in the way the Government did was a mistake.

"Ireland is expensive -- there is no way of getting away from that. We have a problem because in the minds of a lot of people who have visited Ireland over the past few years, and particularly British visitors, that has partly been driven by the weakness of the pound against the euro.

"But a lot of it is down to the fact that Ireland is expensive relative to many other places in the world."

Sunday Independent