Séamus Brennan made two attempts at privatising parts of CIE

Séamus Brennan attempted to privatise some of CIE when he was Minister for Transport

By Business Editor David Murphy

The late Fianna Fáil Minister for Transport Séamus Brennan was a friendly, popular and articulate politician. He served two stints as Transport Minister.

On both occasions his actions demonstrated that he saw how competition benefits consumers.

Eleven years ago he pursued a policy of opening CIE to more competition, part of which would have put 10% of bus routes on the market for open tender. Ultimately his plans met with union opposition and did not proceed.

It all has a familiar ring to it.

The current Government’s policy is also to put 10% of bus routes on the market. Again unions are opposing the move and will hold a one day bus stoppage on 1 May.

The National Transport Authority has allowed for the possibility that CIE could bid for routes against tenders from the private sector.

Putting what were once State-controlled routes on the market has a number of significant effects.

Generally increased competition in a sector brings benefits for consumers such as lower prices, better quality, more choice and innovation.

Obviously the concern for CIE workers is that conditions and pay for staff would come under the microscope as part of this process, especially if it was unable to successfully bid for routes because it was being undercut by rivals.

Interestingly much of the political attention has been given to the ‘unions versus Government’ battle. Little commentary has focussed on the effects of increased competition for consumers.

This is precisely the area where opposition parties can bring a fresh perspective.

Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fail’s transport spokesman, was interviewed on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland and said his party was opposed to putting routes out to tender.

When asked about the change in direction from Mr Brennan’s tenure Mr Dooley said that the former minister’s views were never Fianna Fáil policy, despite the fact that Mr Brennan had announced them and worked hard to have them implemented.

But Mr Brennan’s track record in the Department of Transport has left a lasting legacy for consumers in Ireland and across Europe.

In 1989, in an earlier stint as Transport Minister, Séamus Brennan met a delegation from Ryanair led by Michael O’Leary and Tony Ryan.

At the time the low frills airline was losing vast sums and was being crushed by Aer Lingus on routes from Dublin to London. It was considering putting the company into liquidation.

The Ryanair duo presented Mr Brennan with a clear choice: Help the new airline survive or allow Ireland revert to relying on one carrier.

Séamus Brennan decided to give Ryanair exclusive rights to fly from Dublin to Stansted for three years.

The decision saved the airline. The airline’s survival also brought lower fares to Ireland and ultimately Europe.

When Mr Brennan died in 2008 Michael O’Leary said that without his intervention Ryanair “would not exist today.”

By throwing the airline a lifeline he put consumers ahead of vested interests. Mr Brennan also saw the importance of an island nation benefiting from competition in aviation.

Not every privatisation decision is necessarily a good one. A botched approach can cause havoc. However, competition does bring benefits.

It seems Fianna Fáil may have missed a political trick by failing to build on Séamus Brennan’s legacy and selling itself as party which advocates for consumers.