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Mary, pick up the phone and talk to Michael now

Apart from their renowned ability to turn the air blue in private, Mary Coughlan and Michael O'Leary do not exactly have a lot in common. In the unlikely event of them being seated next to each other on a long-haul flight, the journey would probably pass in stony silence.

It is, however, vital that one of them is mature enough to pick up the phone to the other some time this week -- because as things stand, a childish spat between the Tanaiste and the Ryanair boss is threatening to cost this country 300 jobs it can ill afford to lose.

The background is simple.

Last year SR Technics closed its facility at Dublin Airport, landing 1,100 highly skilled engineering workers on the dole. O'Leary claimed he could restore 500 of those jobs if he could rent or buy the hangar space at a reasonable price.

Due to his poor relationship the Dublin Airport Authority, however, he refused to deal with them directly and asked the Government to look after the negotiations instead.

Faced with this slightly unusual demand, Mary Coughlan adopted the same "work to rule" attitude that's currently operating throughout much of the public sector.

In other words, she wrote to O'Leary telling him that she wasn't responsible for his personal hang-ups and that he would have to go through the proper channels.

A bitter correspondence ensued over the next six months, with the Ryanair man stating bluntly at one point: "If you and your government can't manage this simple task, then you will lose these jobs to other lower cost EU countries, who are bending over backwards to encourage Ryanair to invest in their economies while sadly in Ireland we are blocked."

While Coughlan dithered, our Celtic neighbours rushed to take advantage.

Last Wednesday in Glasgow's Prestwick Airport, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced that Ryanair was bringing 200 jobs to town with its construction of a €10m hangar to handle the maintenance of its aircraft. The canny Scot milked the event for all the publicity it was worth, standing side by side with O'Leary as the two men beamed and waved the St Andrew's flag.

Apart from the quick-thinking Salmond, nobody comes out of this affair with much credit.

O'Leary should have at least tried to start negotiations with the DAA, if only in the interests of securing those jobs for his own country.

However, Coughlan must take the lion's share of the blame for her ridiculous insistence on doing things strictly by the book. At a time of record unemployment, we need a minister who is capable of knocking heads together -- not one who cannot grasp the fact that a company like Ryanair will never allow national sentiment to get in the way of maximising its profits.

The former British trade minister Michael Heseltine famously promised that he would intervene "before breakfast, before dinner and before tea" to save jobs in his country.

Coughlan, on the other hand, seems to be incapable of doing anything other than wringing her hands on the sidelines while companies such as Dell and Bank of Scotland abandon what they clearly regard as a sinking ship.

With 1,100 Irish workers at Cadbury now under threat following the corporation's US takeover, there is no sign that the Tanaiste has the imagination or flexibility required to handle such negotiations.

It is not too late for Coughlan to salvage something from this debacle.

O'Leary says that 300 aircraft maintenance jobs are still on offer, but Ireland will have to compete for them along with a number of other countries. Even at this late stage, she should not be too proud to personally intervene.

The bottom line is that hundreds of qualified Irish engineers are now relying on Coughlan to rescue their jobs. If she fails, it's hard to see how Brian Cowen can allow her to carry on in hers.