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Dublin’s meltdown in the snow

Government ministers were today accused of failing the country as 5cm of snow was set to cost the economy tens of millions of euro.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey was nowhere to be seen as schools were forced to remain closed, thousands of workers struggled to make it into work, and companies faced ruin because of lost business.

His absence and that of Environment Minister John Gormley -- whose department has responsibility for local authorities -- comes as the capital struggled to function, with no emergency plan in place.

With road gritting supplies down to just a day's worth, Dublin City Council Transport Manager Michael Phillips admitted another heavy snowfall could plunge the city into total chaos.

If conditions remain as bad in the coming days, then tens of millions of euro more will be lost, according to Dublin Chamber of Commerce estimates.

However, Mr Dempsey has refused to cut short his holidays. He went away on Monday and is not back in work until the weekend.

Mr Gormley was also accused of lying low as city and county councils are left to deal with the crisis.

His spokesman told the Herald that Mr Gormley “does not have a direct role in this case at this stage in terms of co-ordinating a response”.

He added:”He does not have a role in terms of overseeing. Local authorities act independently on a day-to-day basis. He does not have a role in terms of road gritting.”

Taoiseach Brian Cowen was said by a spokesman to be “at work” but it is unclear if he is in Government Buildings or in his Laois-Offaly constituency.

“This is a national emergency and it needs a national response and we are not getting that at the moment,” Fine Gael's Jimmy Deenihan said today.

“We have now called in Fine Gael for a national emergency plan with the office of emergency planning co-ordinating such an effort,” the party's defence spokesman added.

He said in the flood crisis the defence forces carried out a lot of valuable work.

“They excelled in what they did. Certainly they can be used again in this emergency. They can be used by local authorities as regards gritting and transport,” Mr Deenihan added.

A spokesman for Mr Dempsey said he had nothing more to add to a statement issued yesterday saying Mr Dempsey would be back at work at the weekend.

However, the Government's emergency response committee was meeting today at the Department of Transport building, he said.

While the spokesman could not confirm if any minister would be present, he said it was being chaired by a top civil servant.

Representatives of transport, environment, the Taoiseach, health and social welfare were attending.

But severe disruption has already caused chaos in the capital, and yesterday’s snow falls put major strain on the transport system:

- Dublin Airport shut down yesterday, disrupting the travel plans of up to 10,000 people. Almost 100 flights were cancelled during the five-hour closure as snow fell faster than it could be cleared. It reopened today but was still trying to clear the backlog.

- Dublin Bus services and Bus Eireann services in the east were cancelled. City commuters who didn’t have access to trains were forced to walk or take taxis.

- Drivers took hours to make short journeys home.

Dublin Chamber of Commerce said, based on an estimate of two hours of work lost per worker in Dublin, the cost to the Exchequer was €80m.

The chamber said it is essential that secondary roads and footpaths are gritted.

However, road surfaces were not much better this morning as freezing overnight temperatures prevented a significant thaw.

Met Eireann predicted that the Arctic conditions will continue for at least another week as temperatures plummeted to -12C at one weather station last night.

The Government's response to the current crisis is in stark contrast to what happened during the country's last major weather alert.

In 1982, the then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald cut short his holiday in Tenerife to oversee the emergency response.

Labour's transport spokesman Tommy Broughan called on the Government to recognise the seriousness of the situation.

“In particular, we need to see some leadership from the Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey, and the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley,” Mr Broughan said.

He said the Government “should now declare a national weather emergency”.

Shane McEntee, the Fine Gael road safety spokesman, called on Mr Dempsey to “come out of hiding”.