The Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has said he expects the break-up of the State's three main airports at Dublin, Cork and Shannon to be completed within the next 12 months.

He said the break-up can go forward since the board of Cork Airport Authority accepted proposals to resolve the row over who should pay the €220m debt there.

However, unions representing the airport's 300 staff say they will continue to oppose the deal, which they claim will leave Cork with a debt of more than €100m.

Cork had been holding to a promise that it would begin its commercial life debt-free.

But now Government plans to break up the State's three main airports have been boosted by the six-to-five vote by Cork Airport Authority's board to finally accept paying a portion of the €220m debt built up there.

This decision by the Cork Airport Authority undoubtedly represents a significant development in the plan to make the airports autonomous, but it remains to be seen if this is now the end of an affair that has dogged the separation of the State's three main airports for almost five years.

Background of dispute

In June 2003, the Government decided to break up Aer Rianta and create three independent, commercial airports at Dublin, Cork and Shannon.

At the time the Government announced that Cork and Shannon airport authorities would be established on a debt-free basis, but it later back-tracked on this commitment and since then the break-up of the three airports has been delayed by a row over who should pay Cork's €220m debt.

Initiatives by successive ministers and even by the Taoiseach himself failed to resolve the dispute.

However, a series of recommendations put forward by former Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary Peter Cassells were accepted by the board of Cork Airport Authority last night.

But Cork Airport Authority is not happy and in a statement the board said it was extremely disappointed with the separation process up to now.