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Air strike will dent Leo's leadership bid

LEO Varadkar likes to think of himself as a straight shooter.

Now it is time for him to prove his mettle – by directly intervening in the industrial dispute that threatens to cripple Irish airports over St Patrick's weekend.

Today, the High Court will deliver its verdict on a case taken by the Dublin Airport Authority and Ryanair to prevent Siptu's planned strike between 5am and 9am on Friday morning.

Even if an injunction is granted, however, it will only enrage the union and postpone this crisis instead of solving it.

If Justice Paul Gilligan's decision is in Siptu's favour, then the clock will start ticking more urgently than ever – and Varadkar will be under pressure to knock heads together before Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports all grind to a halt.

The minister can hardly claim that he did not see this problem coming. In fact, the tension over a €780m black hole in airport workers' pensions has been brewing for years.

Like all workplace rows, this one can only be ended by negotiation – and the only question is how much suffering will have to be endured by the public first.

Siptu have responded to criticism by pointing out that there is never a good time to go on strike. Maybe so, but it is hard to think of a more cynical target than this particular bank holiday weekend. While the action itself might last only four hours, the knock-on effects will be felt much longer – preventing thousands from arriving to celebrate our national saint's day and taking millions of euro from the domestic economy.

Despite these sky-high stakes, however, Varadkar's attitude to the crisis seems dangerously complacent. He has asked union leaders to call the whole thing off, but there is no sign that they are paying him a blind bit of attention.

Last week the Department of Transport set up an expert panel to resolve the issue, but with less than 48 hours to go, it looks like a case of too little, too late.

In other words, Varadkar's policy seems to be based on the Charles Dickens character Mr Micawber and his catchphrase: "Something will turn up."


He took much the same attitude to last year's Bus Eireann strike, which luckily ended after a couple of days when unions and management reached a new agreement. With so many industrial disputes still simmering in the transport sector, this is a dangerous strategy – and one day soon it might just blow up in the minister's face.

When conflicts such as this go down to the wire, he should be willing to get personally involved. Like most members of the Cabinet, Varadkar himself has a flight to catch next weekend. He is due to visit the American cities of Atlanta and Savannah as part of the great St Patrick's Day ministerial exodus.

He's already said that he won't travel if the strike goes ahead. So if today's High Court verdict goes Siptu's way he'll be spending the weekend in Dublin, which might give him time to act decisively on this matter.

Varadkar is no ordinary minister. He is also a strong contender to be the next Fine Gael leader, with only Simon Coveney as a serious rival at this point.

So far he has proved to be a dab hand at soft-focus projects, but a future Taoiseach should be tough enough to face down the occasional trade union. Leo Varadkar must start getting his hands dirty.

If the Minister fails to prevent Friday's airport strike, he may find his leadership ambitions a little harder to get off the ground.