Alert wreaks further passport havoc
Published 23/03/2010 | 14:22
A security alert has wreaked further havoc on Dublin's passport office as a contentious work-to-rule left 40,000 people awaiting travel documents.
Around 100 people were forced to flee the Molesworth Street offices where hundreds more had been queuing from as early as 3.30am this morning.
A Garda spokesman confirmed they were searching for an alleged suspect device after a telephone call to a city centre garda station.
Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin has pleaded with passport office staff to call off the industrial action as tempers reached boiling point among those desperate for passports for holidays and other travel arrangements.
Union leaders claimed a valuable printing machine damaged in a flood last Monday had compounded problems.
"As a result it has brought misery for many people who simply wanted the state to provide them with travel documents," the minister said.
"Conditions there are simply not acceptable."
It is estimated it will now take up to 20 working days for a passport application to be processed.
Lower grade employees, members of the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU), have continued a work-to-rule over several weeks including refusing to answer phones or man counters at lunchtime and shutting down counters for one afternoon a week in their dispute over pay cuts.
The staff were angered after cuts for senior management were reversed after the Budget.
Rowdy scenes broke out for a third time at the city centre offices as scores of people queuing demanded access to their documents. Some claimed customers had been told only those who had suffered a bereavement and needed to travel would be fast-tracked.
Blair Horan, CPSU spokesman, said the union was entering talks with management at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) but insisted the work-to-rule would not be lifted.
"We are not prepared to call it off," the union leader warned.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore also urged an end to the action.
"This action has caused no inconvenience for Fianna Fail itself and it may well be a political plus for them because of the public reaction it is provoking," Mr Gilmore said.
"The staff concerned and their union would, I believe, win greater public support for their case if a decision were made to suspend the action now.
"A suspension of the action being taken in the Passport Office would not only be a great relief to those who desperately need their passports, it would also be a gesture of goodwill that could help create a more positive atmosphere for the talks now under way."
Billy Timmins, Fine Gael foreign affairs spokesman, said chaos in issuing passports meant people's constitutional right to travel was being infringed.
He said the minister has the power under section 8 of the Passport Act to make a regulation to extend the life of passports for specified periods.
"There is no reason he cannot do this immediately and address the frustration and, in many cases, the heartbreak of thousands of Irish citizens," Mr Timmins said.
"This is not low-intensity or minor industrial action but rather a strike by any other name."
Mr Martin said respect for the passport office had been thrown into jeopardy because of the work-to-rule.
"I am greatly concerned at the effects that the ongoing industrial action is having on the Irish public," he said.
"Continuation of this action will only have the effect of inflicting pain on Irish people who have plans to travel for personal or business reasons.
"The place to solve this dispute is through the talks process, not by inconveniencing people and putting them to extra cost."
"It's heaping misery on people from across the board," Minister Martin said.
"In my view the logical decision now should be to suspend the action and participate in the talks process."
Mr Martin said he was aware the issue could potentially escalate into strike action.
"I'm very conscious of where all this could lead, that is why we have been reasonable in our approach up to now," he added.
"We understand that people have difficulties with the decisions that have been taken but we did so in the interests of the country."