FEARS are growing for the jobs of more than 3,000 staff following reports that executives at computer giant Dell have decided to close its Limerick plant.
Business and civic leaders in Limerick yesterday called on Dell to come clean about its plans for the massive manufacturing plant in the Mid-West region.
This week US financial newspaper 'The Wall Street Journal' reported that Dell executives made a decision last year to close the Limerick plant, although they did not establish a timeline.
And yesterday Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Enterprise, refused to give a direct answer to the question of how long her department had been aware of claims about the risk to the 3,000 jobs in Limerick and 1,350 in Dublin.
Ms Coughlan said she had spoken to her predecessor, Micheal Martin, on the issue. She said he had been in contact with Dell and had been aware of developments through liaison with the Industrial Development Authority (IDA).
But the Tanaiste did not elaborate on the extent or timeframe of the contacts, except to suggest that the Government had been reassured on every occasion.
Earlier this month, the same financial newspaper reported that Dell was preparing to sell their Irish plants to contract producers. Last night, a spokeswoman for Dell Ireland said it would not be commenting on speculation.
Ms Coughlan said the sole source for the new claims that the jobs were under threat was a single story in a single newspaper. "It's important that we don't speculate on this issue," she added.
She added that the IDA had been in touch with the Dell parent company, which had said it was taking a global perspective on its future needs. She had not spoken to Dell herself but her department "has kept me fully abreast of the situation".
However, in Limerick concern was growing about the firm's long-term commitment to the region.
It is estimated that six out of every 100 workers in the Mid-West relies on the computer manufacturer for employment.
Dell, which opened for business in Limerick in 1991, provides huge contract work to subsidiary businesses across the region.
Mayor of Limerick John Gilligan said Dell had "a moral obligation to say whether it is taking Limerick out or not".
"If Dell are having problems, surely the way is to talk to people. I would hate to think they would make a decision without talking to us. These are real life people who are working there with families and mortgages," Mr Gilligan said.
The Dean of University of Limerick's Kemmy Business School, Prof Donal Dineen, said people were being given limited information.
"We have been told that the Limerick plant is the jewel in the crown, but there is so much speculation coming out. Perhaps Dell is not as competitive as it was, but we do not know the clear picture here. That is the problem," Mr Dineen said.
Maria Kelly, Chief Executive of Limerick Chamber of Commerce, said Dell management should allow the region "a window of opportunity to let us know what exactly we are dealing with".
"If needs be, we should be given adequate time -- 18 months to two years -- to prepare properly for anything that may be coming," Ms Kelly said.
She added that the continuing speculation was undermining confidence in the region.
"This highlights how vulnerable we are in Limerick. Dell have been wonderful to us here, but the Government and the IDA have failed to bring in other major investment," she said.
She said pharmaceuticals firm Johnson & Johnson was the last major foreign investor to move to the city in 1995.
"If you only have one significant employer, a region is extremely vulnerable. A concentrated focus has to be applied to the region now so that we are not left scrambling, as happened following the Aer Lingus-Heathrow decision last year," she added.