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Shane Ross: Mary: muddled or muzzled?

AER Lingus still rules OK? Last Wednesday a basement in the bowels of Leinster House resembled a padded cell for the insane. Michael O'Leary has turned the lunatics in the aviation asylum on their heads.

A man who was shedding no less than 1,100 jobs at the airport descended to the dungeon to confront a man who was promising 300 in the same place. The Oireachtas Transport Committee was hosting the row between O'Leary and Mary Coughlan's allies in Dublin Airport and Aer Lingus.

Wednesday morning's news had revealed that Christoph Mueller -- of Aer Lingus and Germany -- was threatening to make 1,100 employees compulsorily redundant.

On the same day Michael O'Leary -- of Mullingar and Ryanair -- entered the arena promising 300 jobs.

Michael should have been given a hero's welcome by grateful local politicians.

Christoph should have been booed off the stage.

Far from it.

The Ryanair chief was subjected to tough treatment. Some sceptical TDs dismissed his offer of 300 jobs.

The air was full of innuendo that Michael's promised jobs were phoney, that he had already secretly agreed to locate his operations elsewhere.

Fianna Fail's Michael Kennedy even implied that O'Leary was leading the 800 laid-off SR Technics workers up the garden path, having already decided to take the Ryanair jobs to Germany.

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The Ryanair boss convincingly scotched that suggestion, insisting once again that the jobs would be lost to Christoph's home country of Germany if Christoph, Minister Mary Coughlan and the czars of the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) did not agree to give him the now infamous Hangar 6.

The trio ganged up against him. Christoph insisted that he was not for budging.

Declan Collier, head of the DAA monopoly, supported Christoph's stance.

Mary herself was a no- show. According to her press office, she was willing to come after the facts had been established!

While Mary did not show up at the meeting arranged to save the jobs, she was well able to make a muddled comment later.

Mary could sort it out in minutes, but will not: Aer Lingus and the DAA are making much of the lease on Hangar 6, which they maintain ties them into an irrevocable deal. Neither will break their agreement.

Honourable parties, these two old allies. Sometimes I even forget that Aer Lingus chairman Colm Barrington came hotfoot from the board of the DAA.

But there is a simple way around the Aer Lingus/DAA alliance. Mary owns the wretched DAA -- which she shields like an overfed baby. On the Aer Lingus side Mary owns 25 per cent while Michael owns 29 per cent.

Could Mary and Michael not join forces to scrap the lease? Mary could use her ownership of the DAA to cancel the lease on one side. The two combatants could combine their 54 per cent to cancel it on the other. Then Aer Lingus and the DAA would by mutual agreement scrap the deal. The hangar would be empty. Michael could march in with his 300 jobs.

This could be done in 24 hours.

Understandably, Christoph does not want to allow his competitor into the hangar. But Christoph does not have the 300 jobs on his radar. Indeed he is more intent on reducing jobs.

His sole interest is the bottom line at Aer Lingus. Awkwardly for him, he has Mary (25 per cent) and Michael (29 per cent) as the monkeys on his back. Not an ideal shareholder base.

Luckily for him, Mary is a well-tamed monkey. Michael is a guerilla.

Mary is supposedly holding her 25 per cent in the national interest.

Of course, the State should never have held on to the shares in the original privatisation. Aer Lingus is a semi-state hybrid. The State's holding was bound to create conflicts, like the present quandary.

We all know that the State's stake was retained to stop dynamos like Michael O'Leary from taking over Aer Lingus. It was a job protection stake. It was meant to prevent runaway capitalism from reducing employment in North Dublin. It was Bertie -- the North Dublin Taoiseach's -- little insurance policy.

Last Wednesday was Mary's chance to exercise her muscle. She could have come down to the dungeon, shook hands with Michael and joined forces to save the 300 jobs.

She bottled it. Instead, a spokesman for the Tanaiste told the Irish Independent's Aine Kerr that combining the two holdings "would not be in the commercial interests of Aer Lingus shareholders".

What a muddled reply from a muzzled minister.

Since when was Mary acting in the commercial interests of the other Aer Lingus shareholders? Her stake represents the interests of the nation. Presumably that includes landing jobs for Ireland?

The other shareholders are Ryanair, the ESOT, Denis O'Brien, the pilots and a smattering of small investors. If the jobs issue went to a vote at an EGM, would Mary really side with Christoph and his job-cutters?

According to Christoph, she has already asked him to exit Hangar 6. Yet she cannot bring herself to unite with Michael O'Leary in this mission.

Which seems to prove a point. The spat is personal. Three dead hands of the State are uniting in a devil's pact to thwart the ambitions of the entrepreneur, O'Leary.

Not a great reason for stopping the jobs.

The proof of the absurdity of Mary's stance emerged as ever on RTE's Morning Ireland on Thursday. Enter the workers, the victims of the Coughlan/DAA/Aer Lingus strategy, to put manners on Michael.

John Devlin spoke from the heart for the SR Technics workers. John knows the hangars. He protested that "people in Dail Eireann and people outside Dail Eireann are talking about these hangars and they don't know what they are talking about, and I think if they get a better idea, if they see what's exactly there, they may understand why Ryanair wants those hangars."

Devlin was rooting for Ryanair. The jobs are all that matter.

Suddenly reality has dawned. The workforce do not care who delivers the jobs. Michael O'Leary, the man who said "Hell would freeze over" before he would allow a trade union into Hangar 6, is offering a lifeline to 300 human beings.

The workers want Mary to back Michael.

But Mary is wedded to the DAA and Aer Lingus.

Anti-O'Leary forces are desperate. Dark propaganda is being peddled.

Sources among the troika are suggesting that Michael wants to build his own terminal at Dublin Airport, that he has a hidden agenda to challenge the DAA.

What a splendid idea. Allow the Ryanair chief to build a modern terminal in competition with the DAA slum.

Competition? God forbid. Declan Collier, the DAA boss paid €638,000 a year, cannot even manage a monopoly let alone take on a competitor.

Leinster House has caught a bout of insanity. All parties are on a spit. The Labour Party, still in love with the DAA, cannot make up its mind whether it hates Mary Coughlan or Michael O'Leary more. Fine Gael is moving against its own conservative instincts to champion the risk-taker, O'Leary.

Fianna Fail, embarrassed by the mess created by Minister Mary, is pretending that O'Leary cannot deliver the jobs. Which he can. The workers are backing O'Leary.

While O'Leary has happily turned the rest of the world upside down, Aer Lingus still rules OK?