Friday 20 September 2019

Kevin Myers: More subsidised companies likely to fail as fangs of reality bite

As we clear up the ruins of the Celtic Tiger, is it remotely possible we'll begin to conduct some post-mortems into how we got so many things wrong? We need to realise this now, while the corpse stiffens before our eyes, and learn our lessons: otherwise, given the chance again, our politicians will inevitably go down the same route, performing the same mistakes and killing another generation of golden opportunities.

Look at the wretched picture of Galway Airport, now pleading to be rescued from imminent bankruptcy by the State -- the very organisation that helped place it on the precipice in the first place. Galway Airport is the love child of the sentimentalised politics of independence and the rip-roaring tearaway Playboy of the Western World that was the Celtic Tiger.

It is hard to diagnose any real commercial logic in our airport policy -- this is because there was none. Airports were plonked by different govern-ments wherever they might win votes, regardless of actual need. Thus a relatively small area on the western seaboard, with a low population, got three "commercial" airports: Knock, Galway and Sligo.

This is as many airports over a comparable area as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool have: the difference being that the conurbation enclosed by those contains a population of about eight million. Whereas the Knock, Galway, Sligo nexus contains the population of one English industrial town: Stoke, say.

Yes, the usual ration of unprincipled and witless populism was behind the creation of so many airports in such a small area -- but there was this other thing too: the myth that somehow or other, the west was special, the west was real, the west was MORE Irish. Ordinary economics and ordinary rules didn't apply if they were linked to that magic word, 'Irish'. Thus we had special development boards designed to create jobs for these authentically Irish areas.

There was Shannon Development Authority, whose brief went far beyond its riparian catchment area, and reached wherever the moral superiority of being authentically Irish reigned.

And there was Udaras na Gaeltachta, whose alleged purpose was to provide jobs for Irish speakers. Have you heard of anything more stupid in your life? Jobs, not according to skills or market demands, but solely because one speaks a particular language: and what breathtaking opportunities for the usual ration of hypocrisy, lies and evasions that have accompanied Irish language policy throughout.

In addition, we had the 'Public Service Obligation', which commanded that the State lay on subsidised trans-port for western island folk. The notion that this lifeform was essentially superior to the mainland Irish became a defining feature of the State. Several generations of poor blameless citizens had their childhoods ruined by the imposition of the demented reminiscences of Peig Sayers, a pipe-smoking old mad woman from the Blaskets.

This female Fred West, not content with having her own life filled with misery, was determined to spread it as far as she possibly could. In this ambition she was assisted by a lunatic from England named Robin Flowers and several Scandinavians with straws in their hair and a berserker look in their eyes, who between them turned her geriatric babblings into an educational purgatory for hundreds of thousands of children.

This unreal and romantic western fiddle-faddle was reinforced by Charles Haughey's ruthless state investment in Knock Airport, both as a local vote-getter and a cynical Rome appeaser: thus Co Mayo, on the 22 fog-free days or so a year when it actually achieves operational visibility, has the only runway in these islands (apart from RAF Brize Norton) from which a fully laden B52 can take off. Wonderful.

So how could another airport a few parishes away possibly survive? Simple: by subsidies. Galway Airport last year got €1.33m in state aid for its 59,000 passengers, which was €26 per passenger: the price of many an airfare to London from Dublin. And it received €1m from the compulsory island flights organised under the Public Service Obligation through Aer Arann, which itself is subsidised. In other words, for every single passenger through the airport, the State paid at least €40.

And guess what: it still didn't break even. Naturally, with its subsidies now being withdrawn, Galway Airport management is popping gaskets in anger, just as all feather-bedded companies do whenever they wake up and find themselves lying on the barbed wire and concrete rubble of reality. And I don't mock here -- I genuinely feel for the 62 people who will lose their jobs if the airport closes, as it probably will. Nobody can view redundancy nowadays with anything other than utter horror -- and these employees have done nothing to bring about the fate that now awaits them.

If there is one lesson to keep and nurture from this experience, it is that there is no such thing as a subsidised job that doesn't take a job from somewhere else. However, the worse news is that there are probably other subsidised companies still to fall as the fangs of economic reality bite in those western regions where the featherbed of "authentic Irishness" has been deepest, and is still at its most tenaciously delusive.

Irish Independent

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