Debate – Shannon/Heathrow

September 27th, 2007 - Pat Breen

SHANNON DEBATE – DAIL EIREANN THURSDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2007 – DEPUTY PAT BREEN

Deputy Pat Breen: A sign on the desk of former US President Harry Truman read, “The buck stops here”. The buck stops here with the Minister, Deputy Dempsey. When the debate did not take place in this House yesterday the buck stopped with the Government. Large numbers of Aer Lingus workers travelled to hear the debate and the Government tried to put every obstacle in the way of dealing with this issue. We wanted to deal with it. The Government cannot run from it and will be held to account this afternoon.

On 7 August 2007 the skies fell in on Shannon. The west of Ireland’s bridge to the world was taken away in a callous fashion.

While this crisis raged in the west of Ireland, the Government was nowhere to be found. The Taoiseach had been last seen leaving the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races heading south. However, just like Nero, he chose to sit idly by while the economy of the west of Ireland faced one of its greatest challenges. Again today the Taoiseach is not here as he is meeting his constituents at the National Ploughing Championships. When the Minister finally appeared he showed no understanding of the seriousness of the situation when he claimed that the key business and tourism leaders in the region were exaggerating. He said that connectivity to Heathrow was not “the be all and end all” for Shannon. For the Minister for Transport to say that the region was exaggerating and claim that we have been telling blatant lies this morning is beyond belief.

Does the Minister believe that Element Six is exaggerating considering that it purchases 2,000 seats per annum and employs 630 people? Avocent Ireland purchases 1,000 seats and employs 160 people. Olympus Ireland purchases 600 seats – just to name a few. Would the Minister claim the Doonbeg Golf Club was exaggerating when it put a €50 million extension on hold or Dromoland Castle was exaggerating when it was forced to put a €25 million investment on hold?

They were apparently exaggerating in the Minister’s eyes and perhaps he thinks they were telling blatant lies as well.

Aer Lingus claims the decision was taken on a commercial basis. The Minister is a major shareholder. Dermot Mannion said that the Belfast route would be profitable from the start. However, Dermot Mannion also said that Dublin to Dubai route would be profitable and now we hear that this service is to terminate. Already we hear that pre-bookings for the Belfast routes show they have only sold 175 seats for the month of January out of Belfast, while the competitor, Ryanair, has sold 1,100 out of Belfast for the same period.

The Aer Lingus Shannon to Heathrow route is a different story. A profitable route carrying 350,000 passengers with a 75% load factor is considered remarkable. After weeks of huffing and puffing, in a belated announcement, the Minister stated that he realised that connectivity from Shannon to Heathrow was essential. This admission was like the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Rumour has it that a new airline will start to operate the route as soon as possible. This is not true and in any event, a quick short-term fix is not the answer. The best way to ensure long-term connectivity to the region is for Aer Lingus to continue to serve the Shannon to Heathrow route.

The Minister promised to deliver a transition period for Shannon Airport after the introduction of open skies but failed to deliver. He promised that he had sought and received guarantees from Aer Lingus of a minimum 400,000 transatlantic passengers but failed to deliver. He promised that Shannon would share in the success of 22 new US destinations but failed to deliver. Above all else he promised a tourism and economic plan for the region but failed to deliver.

I ask Ministers and Government Deputies to join us. We have witnessed a great coming together of the entire west of Ireland over the last few weeks to fight this decision. It is now time for the west of Ireland to unite in this House. It is very simple, if they want to have the Aer Lingus decision to end the Shannon to Heathrow service reversed then they must join my colleagues and me, and vote with their feet. The Government spent enough money on consultants to ensure that the commitments given in the articles of association were not open to legal interpretation. Actions speak louder than words. Hiding behind legal advice as outlined in a reply to a parliamentary question I received this morning will not wash.

As I look across the floor I see Bertie’s team. We are watching them and they will be remembered by the people of the west and mid-west for their actions here today. The choice is theirs. They should join us and save the west of Ireland.