UPDATE 2-Ireland picks Centrica consortium for major gas utility sale

Thu Dec 12, 2013 4:13pm EST
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* Selects preferred bidder for 1.1 billion euro deal

* Pushes Ireland towards ambitious privatisation target

* Opposition says sale is too cheap

* Dublin leaves bailout this weekend

By Sam Cage

DUBLIN, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Ireland picked a consortium led by Britain's Centrica for a 1.12 billion euro ($1.5 billion) acquisition of the retail unit of its gas utility Bord Gais, a major milestone as it prepares to complete its international bailout programme.

The progress towards the flagship privatisation adds to a string of positive economic data, with unemployment falling and the economy returning to slow growth. Ireland is being hailed as an austerity success as it has met the terms of the loans and will leave the bailout scheme this weekend.

But opposition politicians and trade unions criticised the sale, saying the price was too low and there was no pressure to conclude a deal now the economy is starting to look healthier.

Ireland would have completed the bailout regardless of the deal, but the cash is important to bring down state debt of 126 percent of gross domestic product, a legacy of its need to rescue a crashing banking system in 2008 during the global financial crisis.   Continued...