WHEN an embarrassing story appears — like our one that showed early departmental knowledge of the axing of Shannon’s Heathrow slots — the conspiracy theories are never far behind.
For what they are worth, here’s a sample of them: Noel Dempsey knew all along — he must have! The Government planned all of this years ago and are now trying to cover their behinds! There was a second memo on the grassy knoll. And there’s a guy in the Department of Transport who I’d swear is Elvis.
Okay, we are being a teensy weensy bit facetious here. But it’s important to separate what conclusions can be drawn; and what conclusions can’t be from this very important exposure.
The first cardinal rule is that you have to go along with the available evidence.
And what does this show? It shows that far from the decision suddenly being made public by Aer Lingus after months of secret plotting, they had kept the Department of Transport (and others) in the loop about their thinking all along. It shows that the department was aware at the most
senior level on June 14 and was fully aware of the serious repercussions this would have for Shannon Airport.
But inexplicably and inexcusably, the new Minister Noel Dempsey was never informed.
The Freedom of Information records released to the Irish Examiner are a glaring example of communications failure at a senior level. Those who suspect that the Government didn’t realise how enormous an issue Shannon would be until it happened will find an armoury of ammunition here.
That hiatus of six weeks when nothing was done, or nobody reported to their political master, was simply not good enough. The effort to save Shannon’s slots might have failed ultimately, but they would have been in a far better position than the desperate rearguard action Mr Dempsey had to engage in after the decision was made in August.
And we come to the corollary of this, the equally important debate. What do the records not show?
Well, they show us absolutely nothing to suggest that MrNoel Dempsey was at fault, despite all the suppositions and conspiracy theories. In fairness, he can’t be blamed either for presiding over a department that made a dog’s dinner of an issue. The reason? He had just been appointed and was not even inon his first day in office when this mess happened.
So what was the state of his knowledge? Mr Dempsey told the Dáil on September 27 that the first inkling he got that Shannon was losing ALL its slots was on August 3.
In a conversation I had with him this week he said that from about mid-July (though he couldn’t pin down the exact time) he was aware that Aer Lingus was actively seeking out a new base.
He accepted that he would have had a general awareness that would have meant that a Heathrow slot or two would have been required. However,But what he was not aware of until that fateful meeting with Dermot Mannion and John Sharman on August 3 was that Shannon would lose ALL its slots.
Sure, opposition spokespeople and the media have unearthed half a dozen examples of leaks and heavy hints being dropped that Shannon-Heathrow was in danger of being axed.
And in a way, yes, it looks like the Government did not just have its eye on the ball. Mr Dempsey was like the guy in the Kit Kat ad who spends hours at the zoo — poised with his camera — waiting for the panda bears to appear. Just when he turns around to have his Kit Kat, the panda bears come out and skate around.
Be that as it may, the presumption must be that Mr Dempsey is telling the truth. This isn’t like the nursing homes controversy, where there was a conflict of evidence between Micheal Martin and the top civil servant in Health. The civil servant involved put his hands up immediately admitting his failure to forward the memo to the minister.
Until evidence emerges to the contrary, it is the height of silliness for Labour’s Tommy Broughan to call for Mr Dempsey’s resignation.
The opposition may not find it credible that the minister was left completely in the dark, but there is simply no evidence to back up their suspicions that he knew.