The elected members of Mayo County Council approved the raising of a €7.3 million loan to fund the purchase of a 17.5 per cent stake in Ireland West Airport Knock by seven local authorities (Mayo County Council, Sligo County Council, Roscommon County Council, Donegal County Council, Leitrim County Council, Galway County Council, and Galway City Council ) in the region at their meeting on Monday. The funding will be used to try to secure the future of the airport which saw more than 700,000 passengers use the airport last year.
The loan will be raised entirely by Mayo County Council with the other six local authorities paying it back each year over the 30 year term of the loan. Mayo County Council will end up with a 35 per cent stake of the 17.5 per cent stake being bought in the airport with remaining 65 per cent stake being divided among the other six local authorities. The total annual cost to Mayo County Council will be €138,250.
This funding along with another €35 million investment in the airport, which will be 90 per cent government funded, provided approval for the funding by the European Commission is granted, will form part of a long term plan for the future of the airport, that came out of the findings of a 2012 study group headed by John O’Mahony TD, which reported its findings in late 2013.
There was total backing for the raising of the loan by the elected members on Monday, with Fine Gael council whip Cllr Jarlath Munnelly saying: “This loan shows not only how important Knock airport is, to not only county Mayo, but to all the counties involved. If it closed we would have a very different meeting and everyone would be crying blue murder, but today we can do something about it. I have no problem supporting it.”
He also said: “It’s a very emotive issue, the issue of investment has been there for a very long time, during the life of previous successive governments’ Knock airport has been in need of investment.”
Fianna Fail whip Cllr Al McDonnell told the meeting” “I’ve no doubt about the commitment of every member to this airport, I’ve do doubt about Fine Gael and I’ve no doubt about this side of the house either, because we put it there.” To which Cllr Munnelly replied “We paid for it”. After some laughter from the chamber to the response, Cllr McDonnell went on to say: “But I do have a problem with the attitude to this airport by those east of the Shannon, we never had many friends east of the Shannon. They laughed at us one time, but not now. I am disappointed that this motion is before us, but we have no option but to support it, because if we don’t as Jarlath said, we could have a very different meeting here. But the question I have to ask is when is the big capital investment coming, when is the 90 per cent grant for the works required being authorised. Our government representatives, no matter who it is, we should be critical. If there is an issue with Europe it’s the duty of the national representatives to highlight the importance of this indispensable piece of infrastructure and we need the 90 per cent, because if it closes it would be a catastrophe. We need the capital investment not next year but now.”
Sinn Fein Cllr Gerry Murray, having his say on the issue, said: “It’s indicative of how much of our national and economic sovereignty we have relinquished to Europe, that when it comes to investing in our county and indeed my parish we must first have to seek approve the EU Commission and other bodies.” He also questioned where the money from previous governments’ commitments to the airport went, saying: “The previous government made a promise of funding to the airport, €15 million of that was never delivered, maybe that issue needs to be pursued. I’m wondering is that money still in the pockets, can it be drawn down.” Cllr Murray also implored the Taoiseach to make an announcement on the extra funding required, even if it had not been approved yet, saying: “The Taoiseach has the option to announce the funding subject to EU approval so he can be seen to be proactive, what happens afterwards, that is another issue. I strongly encourage him to do that and if the EU decide to pull the plug that’s another matter.”
Fine Gael councillor John Cribben gave a passionate endorsement of the airport, and hit out at councillors last year whom he said were not supportive of this plan when it was first mooted. He said: “Hindsight is a great thing, this was the brainchild of the Taoiseach, I can recall last July when this was being discussed. There were councillors opposite me who said this was a begging bowl operation, I’m delighted they changed their mind and every councillor here is fully supportive of this proposal.”
Cllr Cribben also gave a little history lesson to the chamber, saying: “I know the history of the airport, chapter and verse from day one. I know the day the idea of Knock airport was first mentioned, and many people here might not realise it. The day that the idea came about was the day the late John Morley and Henry Byrne were buried in Knock. That was the day when a few government ministers were down, the late great Monsignor got a few thimbles of brandy in them and he got them to sign a petition to support the airport.” Cllr Gerry Murray interjected, saying: “The brandy anecdote is true, and John Healy called it the Hennessy War.”
The chief executive of the council, Peter Hynes, closing the discussion, told the members: “If we deal with our part of this problem, the Department will deal with theirs. Their problem is €36 million to fund that, at the highest rate that is permissible in Europe. My own view is that two-thirds of that is safety related, overlay for the runway, expansion of the apron, its lighting, and is essential safety related funding, and the likelihood is that it will get the support at the higher level. The balance, may be a long debate. When will it happen? The indications are we should get some indication from Europe by quarter two or quarter three of this year.”