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Editorial: Beware of gifts from IAG

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Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath

Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath

Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath

Within Leinster House, much attention last week was devoted to the historic mistakes that led to the collapse of Ireland's banks. While the archaeological excavations of the banking inquiry are faintly necessary, Ireland might be better served by looking to avert future woes rather than obsessing over historic debacles. In that regard, we would be particularly wise to closely watch the ongoing progress of the planned takeover of Aer Lingus by IAG.

Increasingly, this process, which would essentially end Ireland's independence in the skies, is bringing old warnings about the need to beware Greeks bearing gifts to mind. The IAG Trojan horse has been accompanied by fair words and fine flattery. But, in a chilling warning, the respected Independent senator and transport economist Sean Barrett unveiled the harsher reality of IAG's appalling track record when it comes to developing its non-core UK business. IAG, he claimed has developed no North Atlantic services from Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Belfast. It has a track record of minimal interest in routes to Ireland and none at all in the Irish regional airports.

Ireland's history means we should be acutely aware of the dangerous consequences of surrendering your independence to become a mere province. Significantly, Donald Trump, the US billionaire, has strongly advised the Taoiseach against selling the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus, claiming it would damage the country's tourism industry and links to foreign direct investment. Mr Trump's argument that the airline provides "strategic advantages" to Ireland and "should not be given away to the highest bidder" merits close attention. In a world where character, distinction and identity are being swallowed up into one amorphous mass, we should consider carefully the warning that Aer Lingus, like the Irish shamrock and Guinness, is a key signifier of national identity that allows Ireland to stand out from the bland crowd.

In coming to a decision on the future of Aer Lingus, there is a virtue attached to the claim that the State should restrict its operations in the private sphere as much as is possible. Certainly the State should not be involved in tasks such as the production of widgets. That said, there are some areas such as public health, schools hospitals and transport infrastructure where the involvement of the public sphere allied to private sector competition is to be commended. When it comes to transport in particular, one of the things we appear to most easily forget is that Ireland is an island. That status means air connectivity for us is, in terms of tourism and attracting multinational investment, of similar importance to naval power for 19th-Century Britain.

When it comes to the future of Aer Lingus we should note all that glitters is not always gold, and sometimes even gold can be of the fool's variant. All of the sweet-talking in the world by Willie Walsh should not blind us to the reality that he is responsible to unknown shareholders rather than Irish citizens. In such a scenario, the influence of small airports such as Shannon and Cork, let alone Dublin, would surely be peripheral. Despite such legitimate concerns, after initial chill winds, the scenario surrounding the sale of Aer Lingus is becoming ever more equivocal. The Fine Gael wing of the Coalition appears to be much more susceptible to seduction, while the trade unions also appear to have decided that sometimes fine words can butter parsnips.

Before any final decision is made, our Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe should note that the track record of his Department in such matters is execrable. Mr Donohoe might also do well to be careful he does not secure a similar legacy to Todd Andrews, who shut the Harcourt tram line down in 1958 in order to signal we were a modern nation. We all know to our multi-million-euro cost how well that decision worked out.

Sunday Independent