Ger Deere and his fellow Mayo County Councillors have set themselves a high bar in summoning Eir to the next meeting of the council. And if they do succeed, be assured there will be a queue of resentful, embittered customers outside the door awaiting the chance to interrogate the elusive company.
The history of Eir is as chequered and maverick as its treatment of its customer base.
It was back in 1999 that the Government decided that the plodding but reliable State-owned Telecom Éireann would be privatised. Later described by ICTU as the biggest single economic mistake ever made, others were less kind. ‘A con job’ was the phrase most often used by the hundreds of thousands who still bear the scars of money gone down into a hole in the ground.
The basic piece of three-card trickery was that of privatising Eircom, as it was then known, in the first place. The fact that it amounted to the Government selling a State asset, which was already owned by the citizens, back to the man and woman in the street, in order to raise funds for the exchequer, seemed to go unchallenged.
In any event, a well-oiled publicity campaign, fronted by then Minister for Public Enterprise Mary O’Rourke, was set in motion. It created a gold rush the likes of which had never been seen before. Boosted by a frenzied media campaign, the project was sold as an opportunity for the plain people of Ireland to join the investing class. Next year, in the words of Del Boy, we would all be millionaires.
So there were lines outside banks looking for term loans to buy shares. Every bottom drawer in the country was looted, the family silver was sold. It became a question of how much you could apply for, in how many different names. Ominously, nobody minded the small print.
By privatisation day, half a million people invested in Eircom shares at €3.90 a share, and sat back in anticipation. The government made €6 billion, overnight.
At first, it all looked so rosy. Within days, the share price had gone up to €4.77. Some observed at that stage that some of the cannier punters were seen to quietly cash in their chips, but nobody bothered to ask why. And then, it started to go wrong. The share price began to fall, and fall, and suddenly Seán and Maura Citizen found themselves holding embossed certificates that were losing value by the day.
There were tears and recriminations, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Charged in the Dáil with hoodwinking the public by selling an entity that was grossly overpriced, the Government responded that it could not be held responsible for people taking a chance on the stock market.
Then the financial buccaneers moved in to turn Eircom into an ATM machine. Within two years, the company first valued at €10 billion was sold to Tony O’Reilly for €3 billion. Worse still, in one of those bizarre transactions known only to the world of high finance, the purchase price was funded with €2.7 billion debt, which was added to Eircom’s liabilities. (The same trick as was used by the detested Glazer family to buy Manchester United.)
Successive owners stripped the company of its assets – Eircell mobile was sold off, so were even the Yellow Pages, and Babcock and Browne (before it went bust itself) sold off the brand-new headquarters as well as the telecom masts, the better to squeeze every last penny out of Eircom.
Now rebranded as Eir, it will be interesting to see how far Mayo County Council gets in bringing to heel such a wayward enterprise.