Big freeze shambles 'as bad as Dad's Army'
'I am entitled to have a family life as well,' says stranded Dempsey in Malta
As the country braces itself for another week of havoc caused by further snow blizzards and freezing ice, the transport minister, speaking by telephone from a sun-kissed island on the Mediterranean, has effectively conceded that the Government's response to the crisis has so far been a shambles.
"It was far from perfect. Lessons will have to be learned," Noel Dempsey told the Sunday Independent from the airport in Valetta, the capital of Malta, where temperatures hit 20-degrees celsius last week.
In Dublin last night, the temperature plunged to minus 12 degrees celsius; people awoke to inches of fresh freezing snow; grit supplies have virtually dwindled to nothing and the country could grind to a standstill later in the week.
Yesterday, Labour Party transport spokesman Tommy Broughan demanded to know: "Where is the transport minister? The transport system is collapsing."
Environment Minister, John Gormley, who has been dubbed 'Minister for Snow', much to his annoyance, made the startling admission that he did not know where the transport minister was. "I believe he is on some vacation, but I don't know where," he said.
Mr Dempsey, however, said: "This is the second time I have ever gone away at this time of year. I don't want to bring my family into this -- they are very private -- but, you know, I am entitled to have a family life as well."
Last week on RTE's Prime Time, Mr Gormley went out of his way to emphasise that it was Mr Dempsey and not he that was responsible for dealing with the weather crisis.
Stressing that it was the job of the local councils, he added: "I'm not their boss. If you look at the legislation, they report directly to the Department of Transport."
As the Government still struggles to get its act together, it has emerged that a private firm was hired to clear the snow from the plinth inside Leinster House -- even though the Dail will not re-open until January 19. The clearing work took place yesterday, the day before the heaviest snowfall yet in the current crisis.
Both ministers, Mr Gormley and Mr Dempsey, are ultimately responsible for co-ordinating the Government's response to the worst weather conditions in 40 years.
But Mr Dempsey was on holiday in Malta last week, where he ignored a growing clamour of calls for his return home. "Politically, it's a lot of hoo-haa, a lot of nonsense," he said from the airport in Valetta, where he was stranded most of yesterday.
Then he added: "If John Gormley needed to discuss anything with me, he had my mobile phone number."
Mr Gormley, however, was fighting his own rearguard action: the opposition is accusing the Green Party leader of being Fianna Fail's "fall guy" and of being a "patsy."
Mr Dempsey, meanwhile, has said "lessons will have to be learned". He cited as an example his belief that some local authorities were stockpiling grit supplies, which it turned out they did not need, while others who needed more had run out.
The transport minister said that while he was "absolutely aware of the difficulties" the weather was causing he would not take any criticism from the opposition.
Mr Broughan said the crisis had shown that the Government's response was "not co-ordinated". Mr Broughan told the Sunday Independent: "It reminds me of Dad's Army at its most inept."
Mr Dempsey said: "Leaving the politics out of this, I accept it is very, very serious. The schools are out, the situation with the buses, people slipping and sliding on pavements, fractures, breaks and bruises. It is pretty serious for the country."
Mr Dempsey said that he had been personally briefed by the Taoiseach on Wednesday, and had also received regular updates from officials in his department, including a copy of a report prepared by the Emergency Response Committee, which was set up by the Government last week.
He said there was nothing more that he could have done had he been at his desk in the Department of Transport.
There were lengthy delays at Dublin Airport yesterday; salt supplies are running very low; the National Roads Authority has said that it will be conserving grit stocks this weekend, to ensure that main roads can remain open this week; Met Eireann says that the severe weather could last for at least another week; bus curtailments are also in place.
Mr Dempsey disclosed that he took a decision on Thursday to cut short his break and return home. However, his 12.30pm flight home, with Ryanair, was cancelled yesterday, due to bad weather at Dublin Airport. The minister spent most of yesterday morning trying to arrange an alternative flight home. He was expecting to fly to Bristol in the UK last night and on to Dublin this morning.
Mr Dempsey told the Sunday Independent by telephone: "I was kept informed by my officials on a regular basis as to what was happening." He said his officials attended meetings of the Emergency Response Committee where they relayed his views and reported back to him.