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None Of Your Business, Prime Minister.

Posted on: October 31st, 2007

Omerta everywhere. Omerta between the feisty blonde bombshell, the Lady Appleby of Ireland‘s civil servants, Julie O’Neill and Transport Minister Noel Dempsey. Omerta between Sir Humphrey Appleby himself, Dermot McCarthy and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Omerta between the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and its downtown Shannon office.

In every instance, one party knew that Aer Lingus was poised to desert Shannon for Belfast. In every instance the party with the knowledge failed to deliver it to the correct destination. Happily, on Thursday, Lady Appleby-O’Neill gave herself a clean bill of health. Her report on her own activities blamed no one. Nice work.

What is going on?

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Information is power. Civil servants nurture an inbuilt suspicion of politicians as ships that pass in the night. They are ingrained with a disciplined ethos to divulge a minimum of information. Once politicians are handed over the information, power passes into their more populist hands. They go walkabout with it. The civil service loses control.

Those are the dynamics of the trade-off between government and civil service. It has always been the same. Politicians happily buy into the deal because civil servants do the donkey work. But how did the DAA, the Government-owned airport monopoly, fail to inform either the government or its own subsidiary (Shannon Airport) of a critical commercial decision? The DAA is supposedly not part of the civil-service ethos.

This is the real puzzle. Perhaps the answer is simple: in the semi-state aviation world, some players were in the loop. Others were not. Aer Lingus was in the Shannon loop; ditto the Dublin Airport Authority; key civil servants were in the loop. Bertie and Noel, the peoples’ choices, were kept in the dark.

Worst of all, Shannon airport itself, a commercial offshoot of the DAA, was never told that it was about to be betrayed by its own parent. Why did the DAA parent opt to please Aer Lingus rather than to protect its Shannon progeny?

The explanation may not be a comfortable one.

There has always been a cosy relationship between Aer Lingus and the DAA, formerly Aer Rianta. Much too cosy. They are joined at the hip. Until recently, directors of the DAA used to swan around the globe on Aer Lingus flights, free of charge. The two semi-bankrupt, semi-states traditionally shared an indifference to profit and to the sensitivities of the common people.

And like civil servants, they loved secrecy.

Today, Aer Lingus is desperately trying to wean itself away from the bosom of the State sector, but the DAA monopoly is still happily nesting in its warm womb. They are still blood brothers. Even today, post-Aer Lingus privatisation, staff at the DAA receive special concessions on Aer Lingus flights. A sweetheart deal has been agreed. And importantly, they share a common enemy in Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

Worse still, the DAA desperately needs Aer Lingus. When its long-trumpeted Terminal Two eventually opens Aer Lingus will be the DAA’s anchor customer. The old monopoly has burned its boats with Ryanair. It will cling to Aer Lingus boss Dermot Mannion like a mother clings to her wayward young.

So it was no problem for the DAA to do Aer Lingus a good turn and withhold vital information from its own subsidiary, Shannon Airport. Its Shannon arm was left to rot.

The monopoly’s excuse: the department of Transport had informed it of the Aer Lingus move “in strictest confidence” is pure baloney. You cannot keep a confidence from yourself. Shannon Airport is part of the DAA. It had a clear duty to inform Shannon.

The explanation is ugly. If the DAA had told Shannon airport boss, Pat Shanahan, of the Aer Lingus plans to exit the Shannon-Heathrow route back in June, Shannon could have saved the Heathrow slots. An extra six weeks would have been gained. A more formidable national campaign to save Shannon might have been mounted. God forbid, the Aer Lingus plans could have been thwarted. A competitor could have been enticed to Shannon, a political crusade might have been launched. Politicians might have buckled under pressure.

Aer Lingus needed surprise. Aer Lingus needed to spring the bad news at the height of the sleepy summer season. Early August was ideal. June was too early. By August the Dáil would be on holiday. Resistance was guaranteed to be at its weakest. It worked. The DAA’s treachery helped to blunt Shannon‘s resistance.

The raw truth is worse: the DAA sees Shannon as an enemy, not an ally. Shannon Airport is aching to go independent. It was preparing its own business plan even as the DAA was letting it swing in the wind, ignorant of the bomb that was about to explode under its feet. What a brilliant move of the DAA to observe the omerta. A pre-emptive strike against an airport that was on the verge of becoming a competitor. A fatal blow before the subsidiary seceded.

I am looking forward to the next move. Luckily I am about to sit on a new all-party Oireachtas Committee on Transport. I am looking forward to asking DAA chairman Gary McGann, CEO Declan Collier, Dermot ‘Sir Humphrey’ McCarthy and Julie ‘Lady Appleby’ O’Neill to explain their omerta.

There was no conspiracy in the civil service. Omerta is their instinct. They tic-tac messages to each other like the Masonic Order. They believe that information must be withheld from the democratically elected politicians to preserve the power of the permanent government.

But the DAA has a more serious case to answer.