Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Why Stormont must take the blame for the Ryanair debacle

No matter how obnoxious Michael O'Leary can be, his Ryanair business is good for Northern Ireland.

His decision to pull out of George Best Belfast City Airport is a wake-up call to Stormont. Dithering, delay, indecision, procrastination, red tape, bureaucracy . . . all too often these words can be associated with the new Northern Ireland.

The City airport is but one example: three years without a decision on whether or not to extend the runway by 600 feet. No end in sight for maybe another year or more. No wonder Ryanair, like the swallows in my garage, is about to fly its Belfast nest for the winter.

Stormont ministers tell us that they are taking decisions but the public perception is somewhat different.

The Giant's Causeway has had disgraceful facilities for 10 years since a fire destroyed the original out-dated visitor centre. It will be at least another two years before a new centre is opened.

The Maze prison site of more than 300 acres stands by the M1 as another memorial to Stormont indecision. The failure of Northern Ireland to accommodate a John Lewis store sends out a negative message to other potential investors.

From direct rule to devolution, we have gone from the dictatorial decision making of former secretaries of state to an exasperating pass-the-buck-to-the-planners approach from the current crop of Stormont politicians.

The City airport is a classic example. The last thing the airport authorities needed was a planning inquiry, but that is what has happened.

We waited 18 months before a minister called a public inquiry, and we will wait at least another year for a conclusion to be reached.

Was the City airport issue too hot to handle for local politicians in east Belfast? On the one hand, they wish to promote the airport as good for business; on the other, they depend on votes from neighbouring residents who are opposed to the airport's further expansion.

The weakness of devolution is that some local politicians are not prepared to step up to the mark.

Alone among the Stormont Executive, Edwin Poots, the current Environment Minister, deserves credit for having the courage of his convictions. He made up his mind swiftly to grant approval for a £40m incinerator to be constructed on the shores of Lough Neagh.

He appears to have done so because like so many people, he is exasperated by the planning and legal bureaucracy. In particular, there is the iniquitous practice of judicial reviews, whereby decisions can be challenged in the High Court.

Time waits for no man, but the judicial system in Northern Ireland appears to wait for everyone. The pity is that it has taken Michael O'Leary's foul and colourful language to jolt the authorities, political and legal, into belated dialogue.

The new Attorney General at Stormont, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Stormont Executive need to agree a fast-track, cost-effective means of reviewing planning decisions. Otherwise Northern Ireland will become a no-go area for much-needed investors.

Ryanair is a big loss, even if it proves temporary. I thought Arlene Foster was ill-advised to enter into a public spat on the Stephen Nolan show last week with the company's deputy chief executive, and to suggest we could do without arguably Ireland's most successful business.

Of course, as the minister said, there is an element of "blackmail" in Michael O'Leary's abrupt attitude, but she should have kept her cool and let others make that point.

My personal experience of the airline is that it does precisely what it says on the tin. It delivers passengers from A to B cheaply, efficiently, and on time. It will be sorely missed by the 21,000 people who use its planes in and out of Belfast every week.

The fact is that Ryanair has built a remarkable share of the market in only three years because it is giving travellers what they want at a price they can afford. They are voting with their feet in favour of Ryanair.

The message to Stormont is that decision is better than indecision. Michael O'Leary's outburst should focus minds up there, and in the planning and legal services.

They need to get their act together, to stop dithering and delaying and adding unnecessarily to the cost of investing in Northern Ireland.

If Ryanair doesn't return, it'll be our fault, not Michael O'Leary's

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