herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Sale of Aer Lingus could leave Labour deputies grounded

Fine Gael 1, Labour 0. Whether Joan Burton likes it or not, that will be the public perception now that the Government has finally decided to sell its 25pc share of Aer Lingus.

Never mind how many job security assurances the workers receive from International Airlines Group (IAG) - Labour TDs north of the Liffey fear that this decision will have a devastating impact on their own employment prospects.

After six months of negotiations, the Aer Lingus deal looks ready for take-off. IAG chairman Willie Walsh famously warned an Oireachtas committee in February that the first offer he makes is always the best.

In fact, Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe believes he has won some sweeteners that make Walsh's bid much more palatable - including concessions on Aer Lingus's Heathrow slots and the company's overall valuation.

rebels

For the time being, Labour's potential rebels are still on board. Last night the 'Aer Lingus 8', a group of TDs mostly from north Dublin, signed an agreement promising to support the deal in principle.

Even so, Labour remains in a sticky position. If their party is supposed to stand for anything, it is keeping State assets in public ownership as much as possible.

Left-wing opponents have already claimed that selling off our iconic national airline will require Labour to throw its socialist soul into the bargain.

The trade unions are not exactly overjoyed either. Impact has refused to rule out industrial action over the deal and Siptu is also gearing up to oppose it tooth and nail.

It may well be that for the first general election in decades, there will be no giant 'Vote Labour' poster unfurled outside Liberty Hall.

When the Aer Lingus sale was first mooted last December, many people in Leinster House expected Joan Burton to veto it.

According to one Coalition source back then, "This is a year one initiative, not a year five initiative."

In other words, the deal might be achievable just after an election - but would be far too politically toxic in the months running up to one.

So why has the Government changed its mind?

Perhaps Burton thinks that IAG's new terms are good enough to reassure even the most nervous Labour backbencher that the whole thing is a no-brainer.

Sadly for Labour, the Aer Lingus deal is part of a bigger pattern. On social issues such as same-sex marriage, Joan Burton's party has been leading the way in this Coalition.

On economic matters, it has been mostly one-way traffic in the other direction.

That split suits Enda Kenny just fine. History shows that on election day, people are most concerned about their bank balances and vote accordingly.

As a result, Fine Gael have recently enjoyed an opinion poll boost on the back of some good economic news - while their coalition partners are still plumbing the depths and on course for a hammering.

Constituency

Even more worryingly for Labour, there is every reason to believe this trend will continue.

With over four months to go before Budget day, it is already clear that the bulk of Finance Minister Michael Noonan's €2bn purse has been earmarked for income tax cuts.

That is great news for the average Fine Gael voter but not so much for the unemployed and the social welfare dependants who used to be part of Labour's core constituency.

Selling off Aer Lingus may well be the right thing to do. In a dynamic 21st century economy, State-owned airlines look about as relevant as steam engines or the penny farthing.

The Government is supposed to act in Ireland's national interest, not pander to a small group of sentimentalists who cannot accept that the world has moved on.

Not for the first time, Labour footsoldiers are being asked to take one for the team. The problem is that this time next year, they may have been voted off the team for good.

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