Friday, May 25, 2007

Londonderry Air

It began with a quick check of the news:
The City of Derry Airport is being shut by the flight regulator until further notice because of safety concerns.

The Civil Aviation Authority decided to provisionally suspend its licence following an inspection this week.

Problems found include lack of an effective bird control plan, unsuitable temporary repairs to the area where planes park and poor runway drainage.

So Malcolm considered Eglinton, which has suffered the political equivalent of the Drigg/ Windscale/ Calder Hall/ Sellafield syndrome: successive name-changes for ulterior motives.

Strategy Foyled

Eglinton was one of three airfields (Eglinton, Ballykelly and Maydown) built during the early part of WW2, when this area was on the front line:

On two occasions in it's [sic] history the city of Londonderry has played a pivotal part in the history of Europe. The first was the ‘great siege’ of 1689 when, over 105 days, the constitutional future of the British Isles and of Europe was decided in and around the city. The second occasion was even more important. In June 1940 the city became a naval base and was destined to become the Allies’ most important escort base in the Battle of the Atlantic. Not only did Europe’s future depend on this base but so also did the political shape of the post-war world.

Had the Allies lost the Battle of the Atlantic, the Nazi domination of Europe could not have been broken and Hitler’s dictatorship would have continued. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic allowed the western Allies to invade Europe and led to the final defeat of Nazism. The naval base at Derry – shared by the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Navy – was vital to the protection of convoys in the Atlantic and, at one time, 140 Allied escort ships were based on the Foyle.

The Foyle was the advance base of Western Approaches command, and so 'Derry (stuffed with service personnel) was a prime target. Much of the blame for the neglect of air defence (one of many derelictions) in the Province should rest on the Unionist government in Stormont, and in particular the moribund Craig and the incompetent Andrews:

Due in large part to earlier ministerial neglect and prevarication, local defences were hopelessly inadequate, and the public were physically and psychologically unprepared for the blitz. In September 1940, both Belfast and Londonderry had been provided with a light balloon barrage, which was marginally reinforced six months later. By the spring of 1941, the strength of the anti-aircraft barrage in Northern Ireland had risen to 24 heavy guns and 14 light guns. Twenty-two of these were located in Belfast (6 light and 16 heavy). Four were sited at Londonderry; more were to be transferred from Cardiff, but the Luftwaffe arrived before the guns did.

The Churchill Government in Westminster were not so lax. Since only Operation Barbarossa forestalled an inevitable Blitz of 'Derry, by 1942, there was an over-provision of airfields.

A regional airport

Londonderry County Borough acquired the site in 1978, though for the next twenty years only Loganair operated there. European Regional Development money upgraded the facilities in the early '90s. The newly politically-correct "City of Derry Airport" opened in 1994, but it took until 1999 for
Falcon Holidays to begin charter flights and Ryanair to begin a scheduled service. This was not entirely neglect: climate and location suggest that, for all-year operations, aircraft need to have a certain size about them.


By objective standards, the airport has been something of a success: it is well on the way to half a million passengers a year. This is Northern Ireland, so there has to be controversy. A quick flick to Slugger O'Toole tells us that “Truck loads of money have been thrown at this airport”; and refers to “the squillions squandered”.

Now compare that with the reality:


“The European Commission has authorised, under EC state aid guidelines, a plan to fund a number of essential infrastructure improvements at the City of Derry Airport. The plan involves joint financing of the infrastructure by the UK and Irish governments together with Derry City Council, the airport’s owner.

“The proposed financing was considered compatible with the European common market as it satisfies the criteria laid down in state aid guidelines; it constitutes essential infrastructure designed to achieve a clearly defined objective of general interest without leading to undue distortion of the market.

“The measure in question concerns the intention of the United Kingdom and Irish governments to provide over £10.4 million (EUR 15.2 million) of financial assistance to Derry City Council to meet 75% of the cost of two capital development projects at the airport. Each government will pay 37.5%, approximately £5.2 million (EUR 7.6 million) of the expenditure, while Derry City Council will contribute the remaining 25%, approximately £3.48 million (EUR 5 million).”


Mr. Dermot Ahern, T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs, said: “City of Derry Airport serves the entire North West region. Recognising its strategic importance, the Government has decided to increase its funding to allow the completion of development works at the Airport.”

“The Government will contribute a total of €10.87 million to works at the Airport. The Government’s contribution is matched by the British Government under the co-funding arrangements agreed by the two Governments in March 2005.”

The airport's critics (and they are many) have a couple of common characteristics: they tend to be from the east of the Province (and the mental distance from Belfast to 'Derry can be immense) and they tend to have the usual "Stroke City" sectarian objections. Four main issues seem to arise, and are often confused:

[1] The financing of desirable and necessary upgrades to the airport (a process which, in fact, is open and transparent, necessarily so because of the tripartite involvement of two Governments and the EC).

[2] The smaller (and, sadly, less open and transparent) issue of the subsidy to Ryanair:

The agreement struck in 1999 guaranteed Ryanair £250,000 (€380,000) a year from a consortium of four state-funded authorities on both sides of the Irish border to promote its Derry to London route. A range of other taxpayer-subsidised benefits included free landing, navigation, air control, security, baggage and passenger charges, were also given.
[3] The deficit on operating the airport:
Its operating costs are around £3.5m a year, but revenue is about £2m. The losses are met by the council.
To put this into proportion, it need to be compared with:

  • the Derry city budget as a whole (a bit less than £31M);

and expenditure on other local transport, for example

  • the announcement from Conor Murphy of £12M extra for roads in Derry City this year.

[4] On the lunatic fringe, the SEA [i.e. Eamonn McCann's eccentric local Trottery] protesting the Donnybrewer Road houses, and attempting to elevate it into an extension of the Land War.

A soft landing

The CAA's inspection (and closure order) seem to be confined to
three points:
concerns about the drainage of the runway, the facility for parking planes and its bird control plan.
None of these seems insuperable (and it seems that the CAA took over a week between its inspection and issuing the order, which hardly implies urgency). Drainage can hardly be a recent problem, for it was recognised in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:
The excessive rainfall and the cold and uncertain climate are unfavourable for agriculture.
The aircraft parking seems to amount to dissatisfaction with recent temporary repairs to the hard standings, and "bird control" invites Malcolm to invoke the Duke of Wellington:
"Try sparrow-hawks, Ma'am."
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