December 3, 2008
She must have got it from her mother, who in turn got it from her mother, otherwise, she’d never have delivered the immortal lines with such certainty. When my mother pronounced, as she did on numerous occasions, the favourite put-down of the Irish Mammy, “she’s far too good for him, you know”, it seemed she was saying something so self-evidently obvious that it couldn’t be challenged.
Such confidence could only have come from the secure knowledge that summing up potential suitors for their daughters was something Irish mammies were bred to do. It was in the genes; without any doubt, they were always right.
With the Irish Mammy setting such a high bar for their daughters, it’s no wonder that up to the 1960s, Ireland had the highest number of bachelors and spinsters in the western world. Even as the “Mammy Fatwa” on suitable boys wavered in the 1980s, the idea that “no one was good enough for our darlings” still endured in the background. The fatwa condemned me — as a teenage younger brother — to the prospect of unfeasibly straight older sisters’ boyfriends with a penchant for al fresco, Mammy lick-arsery.
Everybody knows that if you are a teenage boy with no older brothers the only thing an older sister’s boyfriend is good for is giving you fags, buying you drink and taping music for you.
Once they deliver the above, as far as you are concerned they are free to debase your sister however they please because the other rule of growing up is that lack of experience ensures younger brothers are never as protective as older ones.
So you can imagine my horror when the Mammy Fatwa funnelled a series of Leo Sawyer- loving “charismatics” in cords to our front door. Thankfully, the Mammy Fatwa couldn’t hold and as my sisters revolted, fags, booze and rare Japanese imports of B-sides, came cascading into my lap in return for my conspiratorial silence. Yesterday I heard a financial version of the Mammy Fatwa. These days, Aer Lingus is the over-protected daughter and Ryanair is the predatory gurrier forcing itself upon our national damsel. Such self-righteous tripe!
Listening to the comment from all quarters, I can hear the Mammy Fatwa once more. Aer Lingus, our loss-making little princess is “far to good for that O’Leary fella”. O’Leary is being painted as a man who knows nothing; a fella who will defile the virginal Aer Lingus and who is only after one thing.
Let’s get real, like him or not, Michael O’Leary is not only the most successful aviation businessmen in Ireland, he is the most successful operator in the world, bar none. Far from being the upstart, Ryanair is the peerless leader in European aviation, having being built from nothing on a model that has democratised air travel, opening it up to almost everyone.
Yes his style is confrontational, but don’t let that disguise the fact that the man behind Ryanair knows how to run airlines. The company employs nearly three times more than Aer Lingus, flies five times more passengers and is an airline that has always expanded in adversity. Its cost per passenger, at â‚¬55, is three times lower than Aer Lingus. And, more importantly, it has Boeing where it wants it, cutting a deal which sees Ryanair pay close to 40pc less for new planes than its rivals.
O’Leary is a maverick, but a straight, successful one. When he says he wants to double Aer Lingus’s size to 66 aircraft and will keep the slots at Heathrow, he will do it. He sees value where others don’t, opportunity where others see threats. When everyone else was cutting back, O’Leary was doing the opposite. When everyone else was hedging oil, O’Leary was doing the opposite and now, when everyone else is consolidating, O’Leary is trying to grow.
But in Ireland this is not enough. We disposed of the moral and, frankly, socially insecure Mammy Fatwa of the 1960s and 1970s but have replaced it with a new commercial Mammy Fatwa. One of the central planks of this is the man who revolutionised air travel in this country is not worthy of the company that did everything in its power to stop him, and failed.
The financial Mammy Fatwa only makes sense, in the face of a dwindling number of suitors, if it can answer the question, what or who is the alternative? So let’s ask the question, what is the Aer Lingus alternative? What other airline is going to secure Aer Lingus’ future and a national brand and a viable airline? In case you hadn’t noticed there is a massive contraction going on in the airline business and the European airline industry is now one huge consolidation play. Sure Aer Lingus has plenty of cash on its balance sheet, but what is its future as an independent airline?
Let us cut to the chase, we are now in a period of massive consolidation in every industry. This is a result of where we find ourselves in the business cycle.
All economic cycles have their proliferation phase and their consolidation phase. Put simply, booms are characterised by proliferations and busts by consolidations. The proliferation phase comes when money is cheap and credit available, economies are growing strongly, asset prices are inflated, all forecasts are exuberant and companies expand rapidly. This period sees new entrants into the business, chasing a customer who is now perceived to have near-mythical buying power. Then comes recession and proliferation gives way to consolidation. The consolidation phases see money become tight, banks share prices fall and they stop lending. This sends shares down, unemployment up, and companies that thought that they could weather the storm find themselves in difficulties. They cut back, as Aer Lingus did, with massive rationalising plans, and that makes them look more vulnerable.
In short, these companies get caught, they can neither expand dramatically nor contract sufficiently. Ultimately, mergers with bigger suitors become one of the few logical ways for these companies to grow. Aer Lingus finds itself in this position.
Despite all the talk of a national carrier and national pride, it pulled out of Shannon when Ryanair remained there. Indeed, Ryanair reduced prices further out of Shannon. Why wouldn’t O’Leary buy the asset, keep it as a mid-price range airline and expand its operations using the UK or the continent as new hubs, alongside Dublin?
There is no business case to answer. Ryanair has proved that it can win in the airline business and, more importantly, adapt to most situations. Of course there will be a monumental row with the unions and the Aer Lingus management. But we should put this down to the inevitable row between teenagers and the Mammy, when the Mammy Fatwa is invoked.
Ultimately the question is what is Aer Lingus’s alternative? In the consolidation phase, there can be movement on the price, but the eventual buyer is reasonably obvious. Is O’Leary that buyer? The answer is yes. Is he a suitable boy? Much as he himself would hate to be termed that, his business record makes him just that, a suitable boy!