Belfast International Airport MD: “Am absolutely spitting useless faceless EU bureaucrats…”

As ever, the significant part of the story behind United Airlines’ decision to end the Belfast-New York route – despite an “irregular” three year NI Executive £9 million rescue deal – lies, not in the headline, but in the details.


The first point to make, given the positioning of some parties on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, is that the airline’s decision comes after the European Commission blocked the rescue package under state aid rules.  AS the BBC report notes

…Belfast International Airport said the flight is going because the European Commission blocked the funding package on state aid grounds.

The airport’s managing director Graham Keddie tweeted that he was “absolutely spitting” about the decision which he blamed on “useless, faceless EU bureaucrats”.

In a statement he added that the decision would be a “body blow” to Northern Ireland Executive ministers “who use it to promote Northern Ireland to would-be investors from the United States”.

“To block a support package for an airline that delivers direct access to the United States is almost beyond comprehension,” Mr Keddie said.

“This is a bad day for the executive and a bad day for Northern Ireland, which is still finding its feet after a generation lost to conflict. The United service was well supported and only recently carried its millionth passenger.

“We have worked tirelessly to safeguard the service, but Brussels took a different view, believing the support package gave United an unfair advantage over services from elsewhere.

“The EU decision-making process is abysmal, biased and unfair and has resulted in the loss of this service.


But this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Newton Emerson was quick to point out the potential problem back on 3 September in the Irish News

The European Commission’s tax ruling against Apple and the Irish government could have major long-term implications for Northern Ireland but it raises one interesting question right away. Would Stormont’s £3 million a year subsidy to the New York air route pass a ‘state aid’ inspection by Brussels? Europe’s state aid rules for aviation were rationalised in 2014 into a single set of guidelines, which only permit an airline to be subsidised for up to three years to develop a new route. Stormont appears to have complied with the first requirement – it has only budgeted for three years of payments to Continental. However, the New York route is not new and the guidelines are unusually clear that this disqualifies any grant. Is the executive hoping Brexit makes this academic before Europe notices? [added emphasis]

Indeed.  Whether they were hoping for a quick Brexit or not, the NI Executive’s decision to go ahead with the £9 million grant was certainly irregular.  As the NI Auditor General told the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee in September.  From a BBC report on 15 September

Fresh details were provided by the NI Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, when he appeared in front of the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday.

Mr Donnelly said there was no precedent for the bail-out which could now be scrutinised by Europe under state-aid rules.

United Airlines – which recently received its first payment – will not permit any monitoring of the financial assistance of $4m (£3m) a year.

The NI Auditor General said Economy minister Simon Hamilton issued a ministerial direction for the bail-out, which was endorsed by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, “under emergency procedure.”

Mr Donnelly said the direction was made after the department’s permanent secretary raised issues about value for money and irregularity.

Mr Donnelly said he was monitoring the situation.

The PAC is to write to the Executive Office to establish “the political rationale” for the aid decision. [added emphasis]

According to the NI Economy Minister, the DUP’s Simon Hamilton in the previous BBC report

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said the executive did the right thing by trying to save the route.

“There was a risk to the flight and we stepped in to save it,” Mr Hamilton said.

“Faced with the same circumstances again, I would make the same decisions. All public money has been recouped with interest and we retained the route for a longer period.”

He said it was “deeply regrettable that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland”.

[Where’s Marlene? – Ed]  Perhaps they are unavailable for comment…

And, from the same BBC report, a pertinent question

Ulster Unionist economy spokesman Steve Aiken said the withdrawal of the service was an “international embarrassment”.

“We need to know what checks were made with the European Union over state aid and who took the decision that it was not an issue?” he said.

[Or were they hoping that Brexit made it academic before Europe noticed? – Ed]  Indeed.

  • OneNI

    Somewhat stating the obvious but of course the value of this ‘bung’ to Untied was radically undermined when the overvaluing of Sterling ceased on 23 June…

  • lizmcneill

    The dampening effect on any would-be investors of having to travel via Newark and Aldergrove is left as an exercise to the reader. It’s the worst route and airline combination I’ve ever travelled on.

  • SDLP supporter

    Another kick in the goolies for the chaotic and inept DUP/Sinn Fein Executive.

    Our esteemed Finance minister, Mairtin O Muilleoir, seems to spend a lot of his time in the US with his ‘influencers’ and ‘big hitters’, quite to what purpose it is hard to understand, other than possibly drumming up conference business for other parts of his AN Empire.

    Last week he was in California and New York:
    …being “astonished all over again at the power and reach of Irish America” …then in NY “to showcase the progress made by the Northern Executive”

    ,,,then back to California to “urge our allies to initiate their own Fresh Start in transatlantic relations in order to cement the peace with jobs and investment” and to discuss “ways in which support for organised labour can spur investment and economic growth in California and Ireland”.

    …then being “excited at the chance to address a high-powered audience of tech entrepreneurs and investors in the surreal Airbnb headquarters”

    …and assuring us all that “when I made the case for ramped-up investment between the North of Ireland and the US, I found a ready ear”

    Meanwhile, elsewhere in the US First Minister Foster was meeting potential US investors (allegedly), without Martin McGuinness present, bitching about the immensely more successful IDA Ireland.

    It’s quite exhausting running around like a headless chicken, but it’s all sizzle and no steak and there’s no point in keeping a dog (Invest NI) and barking yourself whenas Finance Minister Mairtin should be holding Arlene Foster to account for wasting a billion on the Renewable Energy farce.

    I wonder is the taxpayer paying for the travel costs of this frenetic activity?

    Can’t one of his prestigious mates not lend Mairtin a spare Boeing 747, and maybe use it on the Belfast/Newark route?

  • Kevin Breslin

    If you fund it, they will come!

    (Air)Fields of Dreams Stuff!

  • hgreen

    The executive would be better off evaluating the business case of having 3 airports within 70miles of eachother rather than bunging a private business 9m. I’ve also little sympathy for any airport that charges £1 for people to drop off or pick up passengers.

  • hgreen

    Plus now we will soon be out of the EU inward investors won’t be interested in coming to N.I..

  • WindowLean

    Why do I feel the Executive will hide behind the “faceless EU bureaucrat” fig leaf.

  • On the fence!

    I’ve heard that California is lovely at this time of year!

  • Roger

    The airport I use most imposes a similar charge. Annoying agreed.

  • Roger

    “Cement the peace” 18 years after the GFA. I wonder if Northern Irelanders find that embarrassing.

  • Roger

    Best deal for Britain is on its way.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Half the executive … Not the Sinn Féin/Claire Sugden part.

    Considering the massive amount of state aid the EU pays/forces the UK to pay to farmers and fishers, it will be interesting how much the line … “The EU decision-making process is abysmal, biased and unfair” would work.

    If Belfast cannot beat Knock Airport or Shannon Airport for example for Transatlantic flights, despite both having the same competition law, questions need to be asked.

  • Brendan Heading

    The EU cannot be blamed for enforcing the rules which the Executive knew were in force at the time when it sold a proposal that it had no right to sell.

  • Brendan Heading

    Mairtin’s twitter feed at the moment consists substantively of selfies and an overall excruciating degree of obsequiousness towards public officials in the US, particularly of the NYC Comptroller who he always takes care to name-check for reasons that remain unclear.

    One really does get the impression that Mairtin thinks that going around the place glad-handling, being photographed in the company of people, and talking about what needs to be done (rather than doing it) is some kind of approach to government.

  • Old Mortality

    Well you know what would happen if they didn’t. Cars cruising round and round until their passenger arrives. It’s what we do in NI.

  • leo murphy

    best news I’ve heard. wait to the frosty weather comes all routes to aldergrove are dangerous. try the m1 to dublin much safer.

  • hotdogx

    In my opinion this could not really have been prevented by any politician in NI. It shows what little power they have and the failure of the union, as usual Britain won’t care, every other Irish airport is a success accept the one in the U.K. Brexit zone, it’s a sign of things to come.

  • hgreen

    How come other airports manage to cope without charging for drop off and pick up. Even then the airport can’t even manage the terrible queues of traffic into the £1 pickup point.

  • Spike

    It was inevitable. We never had a market for it and if it wasn’t artificially sustained it couldn’t survive. Bit like Northern Ireland actually

  • Gopher

    So on top of this we add the money flushed away to keep Eglington open. The answer is simple scrap passenger duty.

  • Declan Doyle

    Talk about opportunistic nonsense. How on earth is the executive responsible for a decision by a private US carrier? Really, have a chat with yourself. The SDLP have controlled Derry for decades and still no University, the only Irish city without one, now that’s inept !

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Council there has no say in Universities.

  • Does Simon Hamilton have a bit of a God complex? And is that a fascist lite trait?

  • Quite so, Spike, and in the current vacuum of national, international and internetional leadership, are all such actions doomed to catastrophic failure with crashing markets evidence of sub-prime ponzi support/fraudulent mal-investment? Or can that be dismissed and excused if one plays the ignorance and arrogance cards to escape responsibility and accountability?

  • Oggins

    He said it was “deeply regrettable that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland”.

    They have saved us £9 million Simon. They stop the incompetent elected NI officials from wasting £9mill to pay a localised version of keeping up with the Joneses. Or O’Joneses, more to the point.

    Your paid to save us money and offer a service. Don’t forget that.

  • Old Mortality

    At present people park along the access roads and wait for a call. Queues only seem to occur when delays result in too many flights arriving at the same time. People in NI will always use cars whenever they can so I’m doubtful that even a direct rail link would help.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    If i recall correctly (IF) farry
    wanted to merge the teacher training colleges in Belfast and use the money to expand Magee.

    SF not only opposed this but compounded the matter by proposing to blow millions in order to retire teachers to accommodate the surplus of teachers.

    Declan, surely from a common sense perspective this opposition was/is illogical?.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    How many jobs could be created in the area if there was 9m pounds worth of rate relief?
    Just curious.

  • Teddybear

    The staff and students of the University of Ulster at Magee would be quite bemused at your last sentence there

  • Teddybear

    Only left wing malcontents (with exception of pensioners and the disabled) use and espouse public transport.

    I love my gas guzzling 4×4 as it’s a statement that I’m educated and successful.

  • hgreen

    Yea imagine multiple planes arriving at an airport I’m amazed they can cope at all.

  • hgreen

    Funny this statement indicates the exact opposite to me.

  • babyface finlayson

    Did this 9m not seem like very small beer anyway for United Airlines, a company whose annual income runs into billions?

  • oval

    Unfortunately the Executive will not like the answers.

  • oval

    The peace is all our Executive have to sell.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I doubt the DUP are going to say this decision stops a “United” Ireland

  • Katyusha

    Driving a gas guzzling 4×4 is a statement of the exact opposite. Do coal rollers look educated to you?

  • Katyusha

    A decent bus service from most of NI would be a start. Dublin Airport is honestly easier to reach by public transport from much of NI.

  • Gopher

    Population of Lisburn 120,000. Population of Derry 107,000. Derry simply does not need a University or an Airport all Derry requires is a good road to Belfast.

  • “Half the executive … Not the Sinn Féin/Claire Sugden part.”

    And who are Sinn Féin going to hide behind?

    They can’t blame the Justice Minister this time.

    Not with Martin endorsing the ‘bail-out’ under an “emergency procedure”.

    Who did check the state aid rules? Anyone?

  • Kevin Breslin

    They do not have to blame anyone, it’s Hamilton’s responsibility.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    True dat.

    It’s as easy for me to get to Dublin airport as it is aldergrove despite living only half an hour from Aldergrove.

    Could they not provide a link up between the 212 (maiden city flyer) and the airport bus at one of the park n rides on the motorway?

  • lizmcneill

    Not sure if sarcasm….

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Utterly; “I know what’ll annoy the libtards!!!”

  • Ian James Parsley

    This should have nothing to do with the EU.

    I for one would rather hope we would have our own processes that stop tax payers’ money being handed to a foreign airline worth billions without even an economic case far less a justification that it has to be that particular airline.

    If the Executive want a Belfast-NY flight, draw up a business case and tender for a provider. It’s called basic corporate governance.

  • Reader

    It makes its billions on 200 destinations. So 9 million right onto the bottom line of just one of the destinations is worth having.

  • Roger

    “Northern Ireland” is the name of a UK region. The U.K. considered changing that name once. It’s name is s matter for the UK.

  • Roger

    Not sure how familiar you are with nomenclature in those islands. There is no state named Republic of anything in those parts. For a time the UK used to insist on using Republic of. Unsurprisingly, it did catch on to some extent. Republic of was enough for the UK in the face of a real, official irredentist claim to part of their territory. The Greeks face nothing of the sort. But they can’t even live with Republic of. The contrast is striking and puts the Greeks in an unflattering light.
    Greece should be at the forefront. It’s one of the founders of our civilization. That great nation that gave us the Pantheon when there wasn’t a whole lot out there like it looks rather pathetic now. Down in the mud. Squabbling and trying to be a bully with its tiny, weak young neighbour. Come on Greece. Get with it. You can do better. You’ve been better before.

  • Roger

    Point me to a legal claim in Macedonian constitution over Greek territory. Or even an aspiration to extend state frontiers to include Greek territory. The U.K. faced the former for decades and the latter today. In contrast Macedonia has even changed its flag to assuage Greek “feelings”. Stop being bullies Greece.

  • Dev32

    I use this route pretty regularly and its best described as “United’s afterthought”. Its one of the last flights to go out of Newark heading East. “Awaiting inbound aircraft” is a pretty frequent excuse. There are no formal United or partner airline connections out of Belfast, so it gets the lowest priority when they are short of planes.

    Dublin has the scale in terms of connections and choice. The one and a half hour trip is a pain, but at least they don’t charge you a Euro for driving up to the terminal, and the security staff don’t behave like a bunch of prison wardens. Unfortunately Aldergrove is going the way of Prestwick in Scotland and losing its reason to exist……unless we end up with “that border” again.