Galway County Councillors have agreed to the local authority taking an equity share in Ireland West Airport Knock, in an attempt to secure the future of the transport facility.
The airport is owned by a trust but is operated by Connaught Airport Development Company (CADCO ). Last year a proposal was made by the company that seven local authorities in the west/north-west region would collectively invest €7.3 million in return for 17.5 per cent of equity in CADCO.
The plan is that Mayo County Council will draw down a loan for the full €7.3 million and the annual repayments will be met by the seven local authorities. The purpose of the investment is to facilitate the development of the airport to grow passenger numbers from the current 700,000 to 1.3 million by 2023. The local authorities will be entitled to appoint one board member to CADCO and this position will rotate among the relevant chief executives.
At Monday’s council meeting, it was agreed that Galway County Council will contribute €50,000 per year to the loan repayments for the next 30 years, comprising an investment of €1.5 million in total.
The majority of local representatives were hugely in favour of the proposition, citing the many benefits of the airport to Galway and indeed the entire western region.
Tuam councillor Tom McHugh said the facility plays a major role in the connectivity of the west of Ireland. “I have been in and out of the place many times, it is much busier nowadays with lots more flights. It adds hugely to Galway and the west. My understanding is that the runway needs to be re-surfaced and other health and safety works need to be carried out and without local authority funding, there will be no means available to get this work done.”
Fellow Tuam representative Sean Canney lamented the lack of state support for Knock. “The Government has not looked after Knock the way it has others like Shannon and Dublin. It is not our role to be supporting things like this, but we are doing it because we know it is the right thing to do. We need to future-proof the airport.”
South Galway councillor Gerry Finnerty said it had a huge benefit for Galway. “Of every two people who come in to Knock, one of them will travel to Galway. These people are staying in our hotels and B&Bs and eating in our restaurants. The airport is vitally important to the whole western region. A lot of services are being taken away from us. We must support the services we have.”
However Councillor Finnerty was adamant this was to be a once-off investment in private industry. “I don’t want there to be a precedent where private companies are coming to us looking for money. This must be a once-off until we see a dividend from this - which is dependent on the numbers flying out of the airport increasing.”
Fine Gael’s Joe Byrne commented that the plan was not about getting a return for Galway County Council, it was about giving a vote of confidence to the people the councillors represent. “It is the rate-payers, hotel owners, tourism employers etc, we are sending a message to all the people that Knock benefits.”
Connemara based Seosamh O’Cualáin told the chamber that if councillors in the west do not stand up for the area, how could they convince Government ministers to do so? “Knock hadn’t an easy start and 30 years later, it’s still going strong. €50,000 per year may sound like a lot of money but it is only €10,000 per municipal district. I totally support the concept.”
Ardrahan Independent councillor Michael Fahy was also completely behind the move. “We have been talking about ‘Save the West,’ if we don’t put our hands out here and give in the best interest of the west of Ireland, what chance have we?”
Councillor Fahy also requested that a message be conveyed from the council that the airport be known as ‘Canon James Horan Ireland West Airport Knock’ so the name of the facility’s founder would live on. Officials agreed that this request would be communicated.
Mayor of Galway Mary Hoade said it was an extremely important piece of infrastructure for promoting tourism and commercial activity and she would certainly be backing the plan. Cllr Hoade thought it would be a good idea if there was consideration given to setting up a bus link directly connecting Galway with the airport.
Fianna Fáil’s Donagh Killelea remarked that it was interesting that Knock executives were coming to Galway seeking funds, “because The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, a fellow countyman, does not seem to be able to deliver for them.”
Against the proposal
Clarinbridge councillor Martina Kinane believed helping to pay Ireland West Airport Knock’s debts could not be justified. “We cannot even afford to cut the grass in local graveyards yet we are expected to do this. If there is money there, I am totally against using it to pay a debt for another county.”
Independent James Charity believed that the local authorities were “taking €7.3 million of taxpayers money to wipe clean the slate of a private company, in exchange for a minority stake and very little say in the future of the company.”
Conemara representative Seamas Walsh said the proposal did not sit well with him. “Since I’ve come on to this council in 1999, money has been a problem, but there does not seem to be a problem here. How can Knock Airport be any more important than any of the things we have sought money for over the years and have not got?”
Council CEO Kevin Kelly had the last word on the issue. He acknowledged the concerns of some members, but said the investment was not about the money or getting a return on it, it was to copperfasten the airport’s future. “Members are asking how can we fund this, the thing is, we can’t afford not to fund it. We have to look at it in the context of securing the future of the airport to secure the future of the region. It is in this council’s interest to ensure there is a strong airport in the west. If the projected growth figures are realised, this will have a hugely positive knock-on effect.”
The decision was voted upon and passed with 30 councillors in favour and four against.