Senan Molony Political Correspondent TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern yesterday branded the Irish Ferries decision to begin supplanting Irish workers on their ships with cheaper labour as "totally unhelpful".
Mr Ahern's only comment came as he was publicly praised at a book launch last night for his commitment to social partnership. Earlier Mr Ahern had been attacked for remarks suggesting there was "no more" that he could do for the workers of Irish Ferries.
But the Taoiseach said he supported the view of Marine Minister Pat Gallagher, who last night expressed unhappiness at the decision to start the redundancy programme in spite of the recent Labour Court recommendation on the matter.
"I'm very disappointed that the company has decided to disregard the Labour Court recommendation," the minister said. "I would even at this late stage call on the company to step back from the brink and return to the negotiating table."
It was learned last night that the Government was told by Irish Ferries yesterday that the company intended to proceed, although it did not indicate any specific timeframe for the action that came within hours.
But Socialist party TD Joe Higgins said the Taoiseach, Government and so-called Social Partnership had now "not a shred of credibility in face of the onslaught from Irish Ferries", which was supported by Ibec and the Irish Exporters' Association.
The ICTU should now organise concerted industrial action in conjunction with trade unions in Britain and in France to ground Irish Ferries services and force them to abandon their strategy, he said.
"This is a challenge to the entire trade union movement in Ireland - a declaration of war on the wages and working conditions of all workers," Mr Higgins added.
Green Party spokesman Eamon Ryan TD criticised the Taoiseach, saying he could not abandon the situation, especially in light of his "constant rhetoric" of the importance of social partnership.
"The Government cannot be allowed to turn its back on the Irish Ferries workers," he said.
"It is crucial that the company is not allowed to set a dangerous precedent in Irish employment history, by disregarding the rulings of the Labour Court as well as the entitlements of both Irish and foreign workers."
The Labour Court ruled that management and staff had agreed that normal staffing would be maintained until 2007.
Offering redundancy to 543 workers went against the letter of the agreement and the spirit of fairness, he said.
Labour's Tommy Broughan also claimed the Taoiseach had decided to abandon the workers by allowing the company to proceed with their "disgraceful plan" to replace the workforce with 'yellow-pack jobs'.