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Andrew Lynch: High-flyer has her wings clipped

Game, set and match to Mr O'Leary.

Before caving in to pressure yesterday and agreeing to meet the Ryanair boss, Mary Coughlan made one of her trademark gaffes by claiming that some emigration was good because people were just leaving the country "to enjoy themselves".

As she prepares for this evening's showdown, the Tanaiste probably feels like booking a cheap flight herself -- because whatever happens now, it's clear that this whole controversy has clipped her wings and sent her credibility crashing down to earth.

The PR battle conducted over the airwaves has been such an obvious mismatch that a referee would have stopped it after the first round.

Michael O'Leary is the Simon Cowell of Irish industry, an aggressive maverick who doesn't do touchy-feely but knows exactly how to give his customers what they want.

Mary Coughlan is just a middling political talent in a job that requires a bit of the X Factor, whose attempt to bluster her way out of the hole she's dug for herself has left the Donegal diva looking weaker than ever.

The issue was settled from the moment that former SR Technics workers made their voices heard, all stating that they would be only too happy to work for O'Leary and slamming the Tanaiste for her casual attitude to his original offer.

It was a stark reminder that no matter how tiresome this clash of egos might be, nothing should stand in the way of relieving at least some of the human misery that unemployment has inflicted on this country over the last 18 months.

If Bertie Ahern was still around, he would surely have swallowed his pride and personally intervened by now -- but since Brian Cowen has chosen to make himself invisible yet again, we can only hope that the Taoiseach has been quietly knocking heads together behind the scenes.

So now that the posturing is over and the talking is about to begin, what should Coughlan's strategy be?

Clearly she must be prepared to move heaven and earth to salvage the remaining 300 jobs on offer, since losing them to Scotland as well would surely lead to calls for her resignation.

O'Leary's bullish attitude suggests that he now feels he has her over a barrel and can more or less name his own price for the famous Hangar Six, something that was probably part of his plan all along. This means there is just one big question left to be resolved -- does the Tanaiste go over the DAA's head and give O'Leary the hangar he wants, or will she insist that he takes the new purpose-built facility that's been offered to him instead?

The first option would seriously upset the current tenants of Hangar Six, Aer Lingus, and, more importantly, would be derided by Coughlan's political opponents as a humiliating U-turn. The second would save her blushes for now but carries the dangerous risk of O'Leary taking the hump and flouncing back to Glasgow, where he knows the red carpet will be rolled out for him again.

The elephant in the room here is the suspicion that Ryanair want to own the hangar so that they can eventually build their own terminal there.

However, O'Leary said yesterday that he would be happy to sign a lease or negotiate a sale that would legally forbid him to do this.

If that's the case, then there's no outstanding reason why a deal shouldn't be hammered out fairly quickly and hundreds of highly skilled Irish engineers can go back to work.

Mary Coughlan and Michael O'Leary have had their little bun fight. For the sake of those workers whose fate now hangs in the balance, they should leave their egos outside the door this evening and get down to serious business.

As things stand, the Government has yet to make it to the check-in desk -- and the boarding gates are about to close.


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