The jobs of more than 40,000 workers in commercial semi-state companies such as ESB and Bord Gáis would be in jeopardy if they were sold off under a government plan to raise money for the exchequer. Economist Colm McCarthy was recently appointed to examine the companies with a view to selling them off. But a Sunday Tribune investigation of previous sell-offs – such as Eircom and B&I – shows that more than 8,000 workers were let go once their companies fell into private hands.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen asked McCarthy to consider a sell off in an effort "to reduce the substantial and growing indebtedness of the state". But Cowen added that the review should also examine how any disposal of assets can "best help restore growth and contribute to national investment priorities". This suggests that the government may look at how the more successful and profitable semi-states can grow further and help the economy drag itself out of the mire.

Not surprisingly in a sector that is almost 100% unionised, Ictu economist Paul Sweeney favours the latter approach.

"I would welcome McCarthy's review, but with some trepidation. It depends on whether the government takes the 'low road' and sells off the semi-states for short- term cash in order to bail out the banks or the 'high road' which would involve developing these companies so they can contribute more to the economy," Sweeney said last week.

Friends First economist Jim Power agrees and says on balance he is against a fire sale.

"Ten years ago I would have backed a sale of state companies to the private sector. But today given the massive failures in the private sector, particularly in the banks, it cannot be taken for granted that the private sector will do any better," Power said last week.

Power added that the public finances are in dire need of restructuring. "Spending is too high and the tax base is too narrow and this will get worse," he said.

"I would fear that if the government gets billions of euro from a sale of state assets which it would use to fill the gap then that would reduce the incentive to restructure the public finances," said Power, who admitted that he has become disillusioned with the private sector.

"We must also ask what the government would do with the windfall. Would they buy the next general election?" he said.

The privatisation of Telecom was "a total disaster" which left the country with nothing but "a dismal broadband system", he said. "We must be very careful with the semi-states. After all, they are owned by the taxpayer."

Green for go: How sales of state companies fared for their workers


From 18,000 employees back in the early 1980s, staff numbers halved from 11,000 before its dramatic sale in 1998 to 6,000 today.

And there are plans to reduce that further over the next three years as the fourth owners, the Singapore-based STT, struggle with debts of over €3bn and declining customer base.

Job losses 5,000

B & I

Unlike Telecom, which was sold to make money for the government, the sale of B&I to the Irish Continental Line in the late 1980s was to get rid of a drain on the exchequer.

Five years ago, its new owners Irish Ferries sacked all 550 predominantly Irish staff and replaced them with cheaper contract staff from Eastern Europe.

Job losses 550

Irish Steel

Another example of the state divesting itself of an industry that was haemorrhaging taxpayers' money.

The Cork-based steel manufacturer employed 570 prior to the sale but this was whittled down to 370 to prepare it for the eventual sale in 1993 to the Indian-based Ispat for the princely sum of £1. Several years later Ispat walked away with the loss of the remaining 370 jobs.

Job losses 570

Irish Fertilizer Industries

In 2003 the state could no longer sustain its 51% interest (the UK-based chemical giant, ICI, owned the remaining 49%) in the ailing company and it closed its three plants in Arklow, Cork and Belfast with the loss of 600 jobs.

Parts of the company were sold off by the liquidator including sections of the Belfast plant which were shipped off to China. But due to bank debts the state got nothing of the €55m proceeds of the fire sale.

Job losses 600

Great Southern Hotels

The state's ownership of eight luxury hotels was finally brought to a halt in 2006 when the
Dublin Airport Authority auctioned off its Great Southern Hotel chain.

The luxurious Parknasilla was sold to developer Bernard McNamara. Some 80% of the 650 hotel staff opted to take the generous redundancy terms of eight weeks' pay per year of service rather than face the more stringent working conditions with the new private owners.

But a 'loyalty payment' of an additional six weeks' pay per year of service yielding an average of €50,000 each, softened the blow.

Job losses 500

Aer Lingus

Floated on the stock market in 2006 at €2.20 a share valuing the company at over €1bn. Today the shares are worth €0.80c valuing the company at around €350m.

Back in 2001 the state airline employed 6,800 and just prior to the sale it employed 3,300. But after the latest cost-cutting plan, jobs with inferior pay and conditions are down to 2,700.

Job losses 600