Friday, 24 June 1983
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. Barrett,: Dún Laoghaire): This is getting a bit ridiculous. I looked for the Opposition Whip whom I could not find. I then approached the Opposition spokesman who asked for this this morning. My office tried to contact  the Opposition Whips' office to inform them of this. My office contacted the Opposition spokesman to facilitate this. Now we come in and we are being questioned about why we are interrupting business. Are we going to have this charade at the Order of Business every morning with people looking for time and when we agree to give it we are then being questioned in the House?
Mr. V. Brady: On a point of order, I must reply to that. I understand that the Opposition Chief Whip is not available today. As Assistant Whip I have been sitting in the House since 2 o'clock and no approach was made to me on this.
Mr. Barrett: (Dún Laoghaire): In reply to that my office and I searched the restaurant — I have evidence of that — looking for Deputy Brady and my office searched the House looking for him and we could not find him. As a last resort, we contacted Deputy Wilson to get agreement on this. Deputy Wilson is nodding his head in agreement.
Mr. Barrett: (Dún Laoghaire): By agreement, notwithstanding the order made on 8 June 1983, it is proposed to interrupt business now to enable the Minister for Transport to make a statement under Standing Order 38 on the air traffic controllers dispute.
Mr. Barrett: (Dún Laoghaire): The request was made this morning on the Order of Business. Prior to 2 p.m. every effort was made to contact the Opposition Whips office and the Assistant Whip. At 1 p.m., when I caught Deputy Wilson on his way into the restaurant, I mentioned this to him. He was very pleased with the fact that the Government had agreed to the request of the Opposition to make time available this afternoon. We then confirmed it once again with Deputy Wilson and we tried again to contact the Whips office.
Minister for Transport (Mr. J. Mitchell): The Government have given consideration to the disruption that has been caused to air traffic by the sudden withdrawal of services on two occasions recently by air traffic controllers at Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports. They are seriously concerned about the effects of lightning stoppages of this kind and the damage they inflict on Aer Lingus and other airlines serving Ireland, on the travelling public, on the tourism industry generally, and indeed on the economy as a whole. This damage is totally out of proportion to the air traffic controllers' grievance.
It is important that the House and the public generally should understand what  the dispute is about. The air traffic controllers, who are represented by the Union of Professional and Technical Civil Servants, have sought the filling of 15 posts which have not been filled by virtue of the Government strategy to reduce the numbers employed in the public service. This strategy has been applied generally by successive Governments throughout the public service.
Some of the public statements made on behalf of the air traffic controllers carried an inference that safety of operations could be affected with present manning levels. I want to make it absolutely clear that safety standards have in no way been affected by the curtailment of numbers in the Air Traffic Control Service. Indeed, the union have admitted that there are no safety risks at present. In any event, I would not be prepared to countenance any lowering of the high standards which we have always maintained in this area.
What then is the justification for these very damaging stoppages? The union maintain that pay is not an issue. In fact, however, it is clear from the discussions between the union and my Department that what the controllers are seeking are promotion opportunities. To this end they have placed particular emphasis on the filling of posts at the higher levels.
In an effort to resolve the dispute, my Department, in the course of discussions with the union, offered to fill immediately five air traffic controller posts (one Grade II and four Grade III) as well as two vacancies at Grade II level which will arise in September next. The union were told that this represented the maximum offer that could be made without breaching the Government's policy on public service numbers. These appointments together with consequentials would mean ten promotions for air traffic controllers. Given the salary levels and security enjoyed by the controllers compared with the plight of many of the population at the present time this can only be regarded as a generous offer and one beyond which the Government are not prepared to go.
If the Government were to allow their strategy to be breached in the present case it would have widespread repercussions  not alone in my own Department but throughout the public service as a whole, leading to greater impositions on the already overburdened taxpayer.
I must emphasise again the great damage that is being caused, both internally and externally, by the tactics adopted by the air traffic controllers. The stoppages at short notice despite the fact that talks have been going on, have seriously inconvenienced thousands of travellers, including people travelling on business or holidays, and have caused havoc and misery at our airports. Apart from the disruption of air traffic to and from our airports, the stoppages—and just as important the threat of stoppage with its resulting uncertainty—have interfered seriously with air traffic using Irish airspace and normally served by our Air Traffic Control Service. Thus the repercussions go far and wide and seriously damage Ireland's reputation abroad.
I asked for time to make this statement so that everybody concerned would understand the issues at stake and would have no doubt about the Government's resolute position in the matter. The offer that has been made would represent a reasonable settlement to the dispute particularly in the present difficult economic climate. There is no possibility of improvement on this offer. I am now calling on the air traffic controllers to recognise the realities of the situation and not to inflict further damage on the community.
Should the controllers persist in disruptive action, the Government will take any measures necessary to deal with the situation. I hope however, that commonsense will prevail among the general body of air traffic controllers who have always had a tradition of dedicated and professional service.
Mr. Wilson: I asked for this statement because of the growing and serious concern of the public in general with regard to what is happening. The actual loss in money terms has been quantified—£250,000 in regard to the first stoppage and £300,000 in the case of the more recent stoppage.
The first question I had down here to  ask the Minister was if there was any danger. Here we have two directly opposite views, one by the union—that there is danger while the Minister is very insistent that there is no danger, no lowering of safety standards involved. I should like to know from the Minister: is there a contingency plan if the whole system collapses? I can understand the basis for the dispute now——
Mr. Wilson: I understand that. Perhaps I might meet the Minister later and put my mind at rest on that. I gather it is a question of 15 posts that is the cnámh spairne, so to speak, in this dispute. I understand that the recommendations on which the union rely are ones that were made in the early seventies. From the strength of the Minister's statement and the positive statements made by the union I fear confrontation. There has been talk of a full scale strike. This would be a disaster. There is talk in some of the newspapers today of a strike from lunchtime on Saturday to 8.00 a.m. on Sunday, again involving weekend travel. I gather that would involve in the region of 20,000 passengers. Five thousand passengers have been involved already in what has been happening; involving 20,000 is simply unthinkable.
I am not going to say I have easy solutions to the problem. I am aware of the problem from the time I was Minister for Transport. I would say this, that both the Department of Transport and the UPTCS should realise that really they have minor involvement only in this whole dispute. Aer Lingus are involved, Aer Línte are involved, Aer Rianta are involved. In fact this House is involved as representing the interests of taxpayers. Time and time again we come into this House asking for extra equity for the various semi-State bodies, not excluding the ones I have just mentioned. We come in here asking for Government guarantees for extra borrowing. Therefore, really the two groups involved in the dispute are very much holding a trust for a  very large number of people. In the end the taxpayer has to pay for any losses.
I do not know whether it is now so unpopular to talk about patriotism that it has no effect even in this House. The most practical form of patriotism, as of now, is to try to make as much money as is possible for one's country. I appeal strongly to the Department and to the union to get together once again and try to resolve this difficulty in the interests of our citizens. There were people who went to great pains, who suffered a great deal through their love of country. Is it an abstraction? Can it not be concreted into this kind of situation in which goodwill on both sides can resolve this dispute for the benefit of our economy? I mentioned already the loss to the economy that has been quantified. That will be a drop in the ocean only to what might happen if this strike escalates. Tourism is in trouble anyway. In The Cork Examiner today one of the Kerry tourist people refers just to that, that this dispute will do most serious damage to the tourist industry if it is allowed to continue.
I know there is no right of reply but I would like to know if the officials of the union put that most recent offer — referred to in the Minister's statement—to their members and whether there was a rejection of it.
In this country we have invested a good deal of money in the various companies I have mentioned already, not merely that, but we have invested a good deal of money in developing expertise in industrial relations. Not all that long ago there was a Government Department created to deploy that kind of expertise. There are faculties in our universities charged with this area of study. Surely to God we should have sufficient expertise in the country which could be brought to bear on this dispute before it escalates. There is no time when we can afford to lose money like this, but at this time we can least of all afford to lose it.
My last word is: would the Department of Transport — and I have the greatest respect for the expertise available there — and the union leaders get together once more and, in God's name, solve this  dispute for the benefit of the country and its citizens.
Mr. Mac Giolla: I wish to support the call by Deputy Wilson for the Minister, the Department and the union to get together again. I am disappointed at the tone of the Minister's statement which seems to be somewhat hardline, that this is it: We stand here; this is our bottom line, end of story. We want everybody to know that if we are knocking them on the head we are right in doing so, that tone which does not seem to be in the interests of good industrial relations.
Mr. Mac Giolla: The air traffic controllers have made that point in any case. The point is that there are 15 posts only involved, as the Minister said in his statement. It seems that the whole issue revolves around the question of the general cutbacks in the Civil Service. The Government have taken a particular line on these cutbacks. They want to go ahead with these 15 cutbacks, because if they do not, it could affect cutbacks in other areas and so on. I do not think this dispute should be associated with any general cutback plan. Indeed, it is doubtful if there is any plan in some Departments as to who is cut back and who is not; it appears to be a hit-and-miss affair. Perhaps it is so in this Department as well. But it does appear that if there was a restructuring between the Department of Transport, Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta, the whole series of different managements involved at Dublin and other airports,  very considerable pruning could take place in manning levels and in many other areas. It appears that technical areas in public service Departments are not the best places to have cutbacks, at least to begin with. Generally speaking, they are the most productive areas. The Minister should look again at the plans for reorganisation to see if a compromise can be made. We are talking about what is probably the second or third largest business in the country. We are now at the height of the tourist season. The Minister's job has to do with industrial relations and the biggest issue here is compromise. I ask the Minister to look again at the matter and to endeavour to solve it by compromise. There are very few posts involved and there must be an area of compromise.
Minister for Transport (Mr. J. Mitchell): There is one point I wish to make quite clear. Mr. Maxwell, the General Secretary of the union, made it clear on radio two days ago that there is no question of any risk with regard to safety. Even though there may be an impression abroad that there is, I wish to emphasise that there is no question of any risk with regard to safety. That has been agreed between the union and ourselves and they have told us this in our discussions with them. Secondly, we have asked the union to put this to their members but we understand they have not done so.
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