You get what you vote for

Tue, Aug 14, 2007, 01:00

Sooner or later, Irish people will grasp a fundamental aspect of democracy that has long remained beyond our comprehension, writes Fintan O'Toole.

There is, amazingly enough, a connection between what you vote for and what you get. The people of the broad midwest region voted in their droves for the parties that implemented and supported the privatisation of Aer Lingus. Fianna Fáil took 44 per cent of the vote and half the seats in Clare.

Together, Fianna Fáil and the PDs took 56 per cent in Limerick East; 52 per cent in Limerick West and 48 per cent in Tipperary South. If you include Fine Gael, which declared itself "generally supportive of the partial sale of Aer Lingus in order to give it commercial flexibility", the endorsement of privatisation in the region was almost total: 80 per cent in Clare, 82 per cent in Limerick East, 92 per cent in Limerick West, 85 per cent in Galway East, 50 per cent in Tipperary North, 67 per cent in Tipperary South, 72 per cent in Longford-Westmeath.

Their horror at discovering that they got what they voted for suggests that most people in the midwest suffered from at least one of two extraordinary delusions. Either there was some part of the word "private" they failed to understand, or, even more bafflingly, they actually believed that the vague assurances of Government Ministers mean something.

They believed that when Martin Cullen told the Dáil in May 2005 that "in the context of any decision to reduce State ownership in Aer Lingus, all the options available within the regulatory framework will be examined to ensure adequate ongoing access to Heathrow for Irish consumers", that this verbiage constituted some kind of promise. Or that his statement in March 2006 that "some additional measures may be desirable to ensure that the slots at Heathrow remain available for the provision of a reasonable level of services to and from Ireland" amounted to a real plan to protect an acknowledged national strategic interest.

The decision that Aer Lingus has made in relation to flights from Shannon to Heathrow is an utterly predictable consequence of privatisation. As long ago as October 2000, I wrote here that if Aer Lingus were privatised, "The notion of an Irish-based airline with a broad commitment to providing a specific public service linking Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Belfast to the world would disappear." In March 2006, I wrote that "When Aer Lingus is a private company ... howling about the national interest will be drowned out in the roar of engines on the tarmac, as a fine history ascends into the cold skies of private profit."

These were not brilliant insights, but mere statements of the bloody obvious. Private companies have a legal obligation to deliver the maximum profit to their investors. Even profitability itself is not enough to secure a service if the same assets can deliver a larger profit by being used in another way. As CEO of a privatised Aer Lingus, Dermot Mannion doesn't just have a right to move the Shannon operation to Belfast if he believes he can make more money, he has the duty to do so. Strategic national interests are, quite literally, none of his business.

Businesses themselves, including those companies who are now declaring themselves devastated by the Aer Lingus move, dismissed the very notion that a national airline might be, for a small, open and geographically marginal economy, a key piece of public infrastructure. In May last year, urging immediate and total privatisation, Dan Loughrey of the Air Transport Users' Council of Chambers Ireland told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport that "The air travel industry ... can no longer be categorised as a national utility". Ibec, which last week complained that the ending of the Shannon-Heathrow service "will have a devastating effect on the midwest region" announced a year ago that it "warmly welcomed" privatisation.

It is simply staggering that anyone in the business world believed that Aer Lingus could both behave as a private commercial company, obliged to deliver the maximum profit to its shareholders, and have an obligation, as Ibec claimed last week, to consult all the other business interests about its business plans and to consider its "responsibility to the midwest region". At least Willie O'Dea, who was a member of the cabinet that privatised the company, was honest enough to praise Dermot Mannion for acting like a "latter-day Oliver Cromwell".

With his usual keen intelligence, Willie could see that Mannion did, with Cromwellian decisiveness, exactly what he was hired to do. If people in the midwest can't see this, it is because they are still able to convince themselves that what has happened is another Pale plot against the west. They want to believe that it is all the result of some dark conspiracy to do the west down.

The alternative, of course, would be to accept responsibility for the choices they themselves made when they went to the polls. And acknowledging that they got what they asked for would force them to think about the disturbing prospect of asking for something different.