TRANSPORT Minister Noel Dempsey was on holiday last night as the worst weather crisis in three decades threatened to shut down the country's main roads.
The minister responsible for road safety went on holiday on Monday and is not due back to work until the weekend, the Irish Independent has learned.
His absence was heavily criticised last night, as Fine Gael called on him to 'come out of hiding'.
Mr Dempsey was nowhere to be seen as the National Roads Authority (NRA) warned our main roads could be shut down as grit supplies run dangerously low.
Met Eireann is predicting the big freeze that has ground the country to a halt will continue for another week at least.
But despite the deepening crisis, neither Taoiseach Brian Cowen or any of his senior ministers were available last night to outline what the Government is doing to help stranded motorists and homeowners living in isolated areas.
There is also no national emergency plan in place to co-ordinate relief and rescue efforts across the country amid growing fears for the safety of elderly people living alone who are struggling to heat their homes.
A spokesman for Mr Cowen, who is yet to make any public comment on the weather crisis, last night insisted the Taoiseach was "at work", but declined to say if he was in Government Buildings or at home in his Laois-Offaly constituency.
A spokesman for Mr Dempsey confirmed he was on holiday, but refused to be drawn on the Transport Minister's whereabouts. "He is on holidays and is due back at the weekend," he said.
Dublin Airport was shut down yesterday as widespread public transport services were cancelled. Meanwhile, motorists battled treacherous conditions, with local authorities struggling to treat roads as supplies of rocksalt ran out.
The Air Corps was forced to carry out rescue operations as roads became impassable.
Short journeys, which would usually take 10 minutes in the capital, took over an hour to complete, as employers let workers leave early after bus services were cancelled.
Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann both had to suspend services in the capital and in the east because of the deteriorating conditions. Bus Eireann stopped services from 8pm. It said the situation in the east of country would be reviewed this morning.
Most of the country's schools will remain closed until Monday because principals cannot guarantee that children will be safe, with heating systems also breaking down.
With forecasters predicting the 'big freeze' is here to stay for another 10 days, opposition parties accused the Government of running away from the crisis.
During the last major weather alert in 1982, then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald cut short his holiday in Tenerife to oversee the emergency response.
It is understood Mr Dempsey, whose daughter married on Tuesday, went on holiday on December 29 and has no plans to cut short his break. However, Fine Gael road safety spokesman Shane McEntee called on Mr Dempsey to "come out of hiding".
The Department of Transport yesterday urged local authorities to put parts of their county emergency plans into action. During the recent flooding crisis, the National Emergency Co-Ordination Committee was used to help organise relief efforts, but there are no plans to reconvene the committee to deal with the big freeze.
Meanwhile, the NRA warned main roads may have close over the coming days as local authorities run out of grit supplies. Just 4,000 tonnes due to arrive in Limerick today are supposed to serve the entire country.
Labour transport spokesman Tommy Broughan called on the Government to declare a national weather emergency.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul said it would try to respond to those who need help as fears grow for the elderly and families living in isolated areas.