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Talk of the privatisation of Dublin Bus services – and what would happen if any government tried it – is almost as old as the company itself.
The Progressive Democrats were great enthusiasts for privatisation in the 1990s, but Bertie Ahern didn’t like that sort of talk at all, telling his new coalition partners in 1997 that they could forget any notions of a sell-off of Dublin Bus. No one would be upsetting the “apple tart”, or possibly cart in this case, or any other transport service used by his constituents.
But the PDs remained very keen on the idea, and recast their proposals using slightly friendlier words, such as “liberalisation” and “market competition”, and by the turn of the century they had turned Fianna Fáil heads with the minister for public enterprise Mary O’Rourke saying she favoured “regulated competition” and “franchising” in the Dublin bus market.
The issue remained just talk for a while, until in 2002 minister for transport Séamus Brennan went for broke and published proposals to privatise up to 25 per cent of bus services in Dublin from January 2004. Industrial action by the National Bus and Rail Union and Siptu inevitably followed in the shape of half-day stoppages and a “free fare day”, during which drivers refused to collect fares, much to passengers’ delight.
Following the cabinet reshuffle in September 2004, the new minister for transport Martin Cullen resumed talks with Dublin Bus and unions and, in 2005, proposed the privatisation of just 15 per cent of the market. These proposals were published in 2006 and were linked to the delivery of 100 extra buses to Dublin Bus, with another 100 to be provided by the private sector.
However, the privatisation plans never materialised, though private operators were given licences to run some specialised services in Dublin, such as the Swords Express, which uses the Dublin Port Tunnel to access the city centre.
In 2008, then minister for transport Noel Dempsey decided all this talk of privatisation had to end. He shelved plans to introduce competition to the bus market to the great joy of transport unions.
It was a happiness that lasted about three years into the bust, when a report by economist Colm McCarthy recommended the Government reconsider the privatisation of Dublin Bus.
In late 2013, the National Transport Authority announced that 10 per cent of the bus service should be put out to tender. With an unmistakable weariness, Siptu said that the move would “inevitably” lead to industrial unrest, which duly followed.
Eventually, in mid-2015, a deal was brokered by the Labour Relations Commission which protected bus workers’ terms and conditions, firming up an early government commitment that they wouldn’t have to leave Dublin Bus if their route was snapped up by a private company, and allowed the tendering process to go ahead. While bus strikes weren’t at an end, they centred more on issues of pay than privatisation.
The National Transport Authority has gone to great pains to stress that the handover of 24 bus routes to British company Go-Ahead isn’t privatisation. The service would remain under NTA control, it would set fares and determine schedules, and the fleet would remain in State control.
It says nothing has been sold, services are not being deregulated, but rather a competitive public procurement process had resulted in “Meat” – or the Most Economically Advantageous Tender being chosen which, whatever unions may fear, doesn’t – the NTA says – pave the road to privatisation.