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Proud to pay to fly Irish - sometimes

We'd hate to see it sold off. That green shamrock on a shining Aer Lingus tailfin. It's part of our identity as an island people.

Even if we ARE glimpsing it out the window of another airline that costs us less.

Last night I booked a flight from Brussels to Dublin, with Ryanair. I could have booked Aer Lingus, but for at least four times the price.

The EU will pay my fare in this case, so I wanted to keep the cost to taxpayers down. Among those pushing up the price of Aer Lingus seats on the Brussels run are public servants and politicians who spend more of other people's money than they have to.

And that's the nub of the issue for those of us who want Ireland to keep its stake in Aer Lingus. The company must not be used as a job creation scheme, or a national comfort blanket.

But there are arguments in favour of keeping Aer Lingus that are robust. And yes, they are partly about flying the flag, and keeping Heathrow slots, and perhaps even sustaining regional airports.

There is hard evidence that privatisation can be a false economy, and that public-private partnerships are not always what they are cracked up to be. Short-term gains from a sell-off, and interim savings from contracting out services, may be offset by deep-seated inefficiencies and overspend.

But those who want Ireland to keep its stake in Aer Lingus should sanction independent mechanisms for assessing if jobs have to go. Supporters of Ireland's stake in the airline must show that State investment here is efficient, that public service unions live in the real world, and that politicians are not just lumbering the public with a white elephant to appease voters in north Dublin.

And then there are the slots at Heathrow. These are not just strategic for people in a hurry to do business, but a matter of national pride.

People who took the mailboat to England decades ago will recall conditions on arrival. One traipsed up what looked like cattle ramps to catch some of the grubbiest trains in Britain. It was humiliating.

We are proud of where we come from, despite the downfall of the Celtic Tiger. Yet what condition could be attached to the sale of Aer Lingus that really guaranteed for long the future of Heathrow slots?

Having direct links from key airports abroad, links that at least partly represent this state corporately, is good for national morale.

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It also makes a fine impression on those with whom we do business. Ever since Eamon de Valera went to America in 1919 we have thrown down a red carpet for inward investors and tourists. And it has worked in spades.

Would it matter if people had to travel through Stanstead or Gatwick instead? Not in every case, but the fact that airlines covet the Heathrow slots show that the slots are important and not simply a matter of corporate vanity.

Many Irish experience a warm glow on glimpsing the shamrock symbol in some corner of a foreign airfield that is for that moment Irish. But I have also felt proud seeing tricolours shining on Ryanair jets at Spanish airports.

And that is an odd thing about this emotive debate. For Ryanair is a great Irish success story too, yet we seem slightly embarrassed by it.

There are times when Aer Lingus could do better. I was recently told they do not book trips where you wish to stop off for a day or two on the way back. They could offer me no explanation so as a result I am flying United Airlines. I would have preferred an Aer Lingus wide-body jet but need the stop-over.

So yes, let's keep the State's stake in Aer Lingus. But only if it is used to create a lean and efficient service that continues to generate pride while stimulating inward investment and competition.

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