Joe Higgins clashes with Prime Minister
Below we reproduce the transcript of a clash between Joe Higgins (Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party in Ireland) and the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern over the question of the privatisation of Aer Lingus.
Aer Lingus privatisation questioned in Parliament
Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 18 May 2005
Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)
Will the Taoiseach state clearly if it is his intention today to hand over a majority of Aer Lingus to private interests? If our national airline finishes up in the hands of the sharks who dominate international big business the Taoiseach, his party and his Government will be guilty of outright treachery and of stabbing in the back the thousands of Aer Lingus workers and those associated with the company past and present who have kept the national airline going in good times and in bad, who have paid in taxes much more than many other sectors of our society and multiples of any meagre State subventions that Governments have given it.
It would stab in the back the communities that depend on the national airline and support it. Privatisation would be an abject admission by the Government that it is incapable of supervising a national asset in the interests of the people, surrendering it to the casino economics that currently dominate international capitalism.
It is not necessary to privatise Aer Lingus for investment. The billions of euro that the Government has wasted in the overruns on the road programme alone would buy planes to fly the entire population around the world several times over and for free.
Has anyone else been struck by the silence of the lambs on the Fianna Fáil backbenches? In the past when cuts in Aer Lingus or privatisation was mooted we heard shrill cries, perhaps strangled cries would be more accurate, from the Government backbenches. This time, when real opposition is needed, when they need to stand up and be counted we have the silence of the lambs. The same lambs who often found their voices to allege that small Dáil parties and Independent Deputies have no power cannot even bleat. At least we have not lost the power of speech to oppose the sabotage of our national airline in the same way as they have.
Even the Deputy does not believe that raiméis but he has to say it.
Conor Lenihan (Fianna Fáil)
What the Deputy has just spoken is the best definition of raiméis I have heard.
Enda Kenny (Fianna Fáil)
That is socialist bleat.
Deputy Higgins should stick with the kebabs.
That is extreme left, even further left than I would ever dream of going. Deputy Higgins knows that none of that is fact. Aer Lingus wants to grow and maintain jobs.The staff and trade unions in Aer Lingus have no objection to equity being put into Aer Lingus. How it is structured and formed are concerns for them but the concept that Aer Lingus can stay as it is and not expand when aircraft cost €150 million is not a sustainable position. We must move into a world that allows the company to examine new opportunities it has identified.
The company has worked hard over the past few years to restructure under the survival plan. In case Deputy Joe Higgins forgets, Aer Lingus like many other airlines in the world almost went under a few years ago and that position was not just caused by the attack on 11 September. Because of trade unions, staff and Departments working with the company, that was turned around. What it needs and wants to do now is to grow back into its previous position. This arrangement will be carefully managed and organised with advisers, and the percentage of equity, the management structure on the other side, and what safeguards are required are all issues for discussion.
For the airline to build on what it has succeeded in doing during two difficult periods, one in 1993 and the other in 2001, it needs equity. To argue otherwise is to totally misrepresent the interests of the workers about whom Deputy Joe Higgins purports to be concerned.
The snide comment from behind the Taoiseach that I should stick with the kebabs, referring to my fight against the exploitation of Gama workers, ill behoves the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, who has responsibility for overseas development.
Bernard Durkan (Fine Gael)
The comment should be withdrawn.
Does the Taoiseach believe, as an island nation, that our people should be at the mercy of aviation multinationals? Does he believe that there is no strategic interest in having a publicly owned airline? Is it the reality that his Government has no loyalty to any concept of public ownership and being in hock ideologically and financially to big business is dancing to its tune?
What was the logic of the Taoiseach making a play less than a year ago denouncing a management buy-out by Mr. Walsh and his cronies when his proposed sell-out today may well finish up with the same gentleman, in his reincarnation as chief executive of British Airways, owning our national airline? Does he agree and can he see that rather than handing it into the hands of the privateers and speculators a different strategy could keep our national airline in public ownership? The alternative is to invest in the airline, bring workers to the heart of the management rather than treating them as the enemy as some sections of management have done and develop the airline as the national asset it is in the interests of our people.
Deputy Joe Higgins knows that we operate in a global deregulated world. A management buy-out that would have taken 100% of Aer Lingus away from the staff with no State involvement, and putting in a capital injection with Government remaining as a shareholder and part of the strategic plan are entirely different. Deputy Rabbitte has drawn that distinction, which is one that I accept also. In future, we must try to develop the long-haul operations of Aer Lingus and get more access to US airports and the Far East.
Invest in it then.
The Government has invested in Aer Lingus, putting substantial resources into the company in the 1990s, only a decade ago. We have also worked with Aer Lingus on the survival and redevelopment plans. The Government will remain part of the company. Equity injection is not a wholesale sell-out, but aims to build the airline for the future. Ireland is an island nation and while it may be small, it is quite strong now. We want to remain strong in the future. We should note all the airlines that have gone down in the last ten years in Europe, not to mention in the United States which has a population of 300 million. We should also examine the reasons for their failure. If we want to be serious about maintaining Aer Lingus and having a say in the national airline in a deregulated global industry, then we must make strategic decisions now. It would be folly to do otherwise.