Cowen under hail of criticism for emergency response delay
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was at the centre of a political storm last night after the Government was accused of "failing abysmally" to respond to the weather crisis.
The criticism came as he tasked Environment Minister John Gormley with leading a co-ordinated response to icy conditions on the nation's roads, which have caused severe disruption and forced schools to close.
But Fine Gael and Labour attacked Mr Cowen's handling of the situation, saying the coalition had shown a "total absence of leadership".
Mr Cowen denied the Government had been slow to respond to the three-week weather crisis by waiting until yesterday to convene the Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee (ERCC).
"I wouldn't agree. I think the response is a local response, and, as you know, the local authority response has been there for the last 20 days -- dealing with the weather conditions as they have emerged and evolved," he said
Mr Cowen was also forced to defend the absence of Transport Minister Noel Dempsey -- who is on abroad on holidays with his family.
"I haven't spoken to the minister today but I just want to make the point that he will be returning this week," he said.
But Fine Gael road safety spokesman Shane McEntee said Fianna Fail and the Greens had "failed abysmally to get on top of the issue".
He said up to 10,000 people had been forced to seek hospital treatment for slips and falls.
"After three weeks, the Government still has not got a national plan in place. It takes 18 inches of snow to bring New York to a halt. In Ireland, it takes just an inch. This is a disgrace," he said.
Mr McEntee posed for photographs outside the Dail with life-sized cardboard cutouts of ministers Noel Dempsey and John Gormley. Mr Dempsey's cutout carried a sign reading 'Lost', while Mr Gormley's read "Lost Cause".
Fine Gael called on Mr Dempsey to return from his holiday, and for offers by quarries to supply thousands of tonnes of sand to be taken up immediately. Mr McEntee warned that leaving footpaths untreated would lead to thousands of businesses closing.
"We have 10,000 personnel in the Army, most of whom were trained in Kosovo and know how to handle conditions like this. The army have the trucks, the equipment, the personnel and the qualifications," he said.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore also called for the Defence Forces to be mobilised, and questioned why the ERCC met for the first time yesterday.
"At a time when we are experiencing the worst cold period for decades, there has been a total absence of leadership," he said. Local authorities should be given the go-ahead to sub-contract the clearance of secondary roads and suburban estates to private contractors, he said.