Michael O’Leary has a very annoying habit. The chief executive of Ryanair knows the aviation business. He gets right up the noses of most transport ministers past and present (not this one) because he has no respect for their political cowardice or their reluctance to tackle fundamental problems. Small problems like the DAA itself. Small problems like the Dublin A irport operator’s continued insistence on putting the passenger at the bottom of the list. Small problems like its complete lack of foresight.
Three months ago on April Fool’s day, foreseeing the looming problems at Dublin Airport, O’Leary demanded the Army be called in. The man who has to deliver a profit, despite depending on the talents of a slumbering DAA, was adamant that solutions were available: “The DAA,” insisted O’Leary “has messed up its recruitment — they accept that — and it’s going to take six to eight weeks to hire and train about two or three hundred additional security staff.” In the meantime, he said the airport needed the Army.
O’Leary made an appeal to the Government to recognise the danger. Otherwise, he warned, “the place will fall asunder.” In May, the place fell asunder.
Ministers had pooh-poohed O’Leary’s idea, probably I suspect, because it was the Ryanair boss who was seeking it. The DAA was not impressed, the semi-State monopoly protesting complacently that calling in the Army was not a viable option.
Ministers Eamon Ryan and Hildegarde Naughton fell back asleep at the wheel. Everything was in hand. They were even having daily ‘meetings’ with the DAA and an army of civil servants.
Meetings, the opium of politicians and civil servants, would work wonders. Politicians would dump awkward operational decisions on the DAA. The Army would not be entering the airport. In any case, the Army was not suited to that sort of activity. Two fingers to Michael. Meetings are not solutions. They simply give a misleading impression of action when nothing is happening.
Michael O’Leary was not on a publicity binge. He was on the button with his warnings. But he might as well have been talking to the wall.
In late May, the balloon went up. None of the airport insiders in the DAA/Department of Transport bubble had foreseen it. Ryanair had.
Last week, three months later, the Government decided to call in the Army. The sight of those who had rubbished the idea weeks ago passing the parcel of blame for the bedlam around the houses was nauseating. The Government was agreeing to it, reluctantly, of course. Ryan and Naughton brandished a face-saving letter they had received from the DAA asking for the Army to ride to the rescue.
Ryan and Naughton armed with the letter, went cap in hand to Defence Minister Simon Coveney. He capitulated, but kept his distance, pleading that he had been requested to allow the Army in, by Eamon and Hildegarde. He was against it, but it was a “short-term emergency-related contingency action [so was income tax] and is in direct response to a letter from DAA management to the Minister for Transport.”
Meanwhile, Aer Lingus was cancelling scores of flights, blaming strikes in France and Germany. And Covid, of course. Covid was also the DAA’s favourite scapegoat, the superficial reason offered by them for the need to bring in the Army. God knows what government ministers and government agencies will do if the Department of Health ever cures Covid, the cover for all their mistakes.
The problem now is that the Army, the unwilling victim in all this Pontius Pilate playacting, is not jumping for joy. Having been reassured by the Taoiseach, the Defence Minister, the Transport Minister and others that Michael O’Leary’s idea was a non-runner, they had naively taken the politicians at their word.
Some Army supporters were not happy at the defence forces being taken for granted. They should not, as they saw it, be expected to pick up the slack for the disastrous management decisions of a semi-State monopoly.
Besides, perfectly reasonably, they anticipated that if they were being asked to do a specific job at the airport, they should be entitled to equal pay with the DAA employees. Apparently, just like everything else in this sorry story, despite the delay, no consideration had been given to how the details would work out. On Friday, a spokesman for PDFORRA, the voice of the Defence Forces, told me they found out about the Army’s involvement from the press release. That is contempt.
Cathal Berry, the Independent TD for Kildare South, an ex-Army officer who champions its interests in the Dáil, told me that such dismissive treatment of the military would mean more of them “leaving in their droves”.
The numbers in the Army are already a thousand people short. The Government, he said, was taking advantage of the prohibition on any strike action by army personnel, to exploit them. The Army does not wish to be used as “cheap labour” because of its weak industrial relations standing; as only an associate member of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, it has fig leaf status. Berry emphasises that on the back of ministerial assurances, soldiers who have booked their holidays are now wondering whether their leave is going to be cancelled.
He insists, with some justification, that they have reason to be treated like human beings, not “slaves”. The rhetoric may be a trifle too emotional, but an ugly picture is emerging of one of the poorest paid groups in the public service paying the price for the bungling lack of foresight of the highest-paid.
The DAA hurriedly responded by saying it will pay whatever is necessary, even though it admits it hasn’t a notion how much it will cost. Of course, they are talking about taxpayers’ money, a commodity that is easily accessible to a State body without a commercial ethos.
A picture of utter chaos in Ireland’s aviation space is emerging. The Government and other insiders in the public service are desperately trying to sort out one messy division of the State apparatus by creating mayhem in another. Or, as the spokesman for the DAA remarked with a glorious indifference to the nightmare now created, “It is a good example of one State agency assisting another State agency in a moment of crisis.” More like a drowning man pulling his rescuer under water.
Next time, and there will be a next time, perhaps they will listen to someone at the coalface, Michael O’Leary.