That Dáil Éireann deplores the negligence on the part of the Government in the developments that led to the closure of the Ferenka factory, with its disastrous consequences for the workforce and for general industrial development.
The story of the Ferenka factory at Annacotty can be told on several levels. It can be approached—and I have no doubt that the Deputy who has put down an amendment this evening will do so—on the level of the history of an industrial investment that went wrong. It is possible to explore the correctness—I see a lot of people doing that now—of certain forms of industrial investment from abroad. That is a chapter with which I shall not deal this evening. It is possible also to approach this on the level of industrial relations and to tell the story as being one of a disastrous failure in industrial relations. That also is an aspect which, although it plays a prominent part in the story, I shall not deal with this evening. However, the House will hear about it from one of my colleagues later.
The aspect on which I want to concentrate the attention of the House is the story of the Ferenka closure, written as a comment on the quality of Government response to a very serious industrial crisis. To judge by the Government's own statements, from which we do not dissent, this crisis may affect not just the immediate neighbourhood of the factory which was closed, but the entire future of our industrial development which, up to now, has been built on the expectation that we were going to be able to supply a large number of jobs, perhaps even our major industrial job requirements, by attracting industrialists from abroad. It is to the quality of the Government's response to what was very obviously from the beginning a major industrial crisis, a major threat to our industrial prosperity and, therefore, to the prosperity of our economy and of our nation generally, that I want to direct the attention of the House.
This story almost writes itself. If you watch it as it developed, and if you go back after it has ended and look at the public record of it, it writes itself. It is a story that falls into a few quite distinct phases. The first phase is one which consists simply in a record of certain external facts. The trouble at the factory is the first phase: the pickets on Monday, 3rd October; the stopping of production; shortly afterwards, a couple of days later, the statement by Ferenka on, I think, 5th October, that they are losing in consequence of this stoppage up to £20,000 a day. They said on 7th October they were suffering a "very heavy financial drain". A week later they said for the first time they apprehended the possibility of a shutdown. That is the first phase.
Now during that first phase, it is true to say that the Ferenka closure never hit the front page of any daily paper in the State. It was confined to page 7, page 9 page 11, or further back still. That first phase was succeeded by another phase in which the role of any Government was bound to come to the top. As the closure continued, and as the factory and its parent company continued to make it plain that this was not only something in the nature of a last straw from their point of view but that they were in really serious trouble in consequence of it, we began to look to the Government to see what response was forthcoming from them in regard to this industrial dispute and the closure which had followed it.
On Tuesday, 18th October, after the Government meeting, the press reported that a "spokesman" said the plant was in danger but that the Government "could not intervene because what was in issue here was a dispute between two unions". We know the mechanisms of contact between Government and the press and the people. When my party and our colleagues in the Labour Party were in Government we were often enough accused of being all too expert at these mechanisms, but both sides of the House will know what is meant when it is reported that a "spokesman" has said this after a Government meeting, and the House may take it, I think, that that was the Government point of view on that date, 18th October.
I would like to ask, and a colleague of mine will pursue this matter in more detail later, what law prevents the Department of Labour and the Minister who presides over it from intervening or trying to help in an industrial dispute where more than one union is involved? If there is such a law, I would like to know where it is. I would like to know where it is for the purpose of proposing its abolition because, on the evidence of the Minister himself in the frequent speeches to which he has treated the people since then, inter-union disputes are a most potent source of industrial disruption and this is the very thing he and his Government, not once but twice in this story, as I will show you in a moment, say they are not able to deal with. It is a dispute between two unions and so intervention by them is "ruled out". That was their attitude on 18th October.
On 19th October, Deputy Mitchell, our spokesman on Labour, and Deputy O'Donnell, the Fine Gael Deputy for East Limerick, sought to raise this matter here and the way they tried to raise it was they sought an explanation from you, Sir, Deputy Mitchell in particular, as to why his attempt to have this matter raised—because if no one else saw the importance on that side he saw the importance on this side of what was going on, and he sought an explanation from you, Sir— as to why a Special Notice Question, or what he sought to put into the form of a Special Notice Question, had been disallowed by you.
Now I intend—I hope you will believe me—no reflection on you when I say Deputy Mitchell got a very strange reply from the Chair. He got a reply which I would describe as an excess of courtesy on the part of the Chair, because the Chair told him that, since an inter-union dispute was involved, it was "not the responsibility of the Minister for Labour". I would have thought it would have been up to the Minister himself to give that explanation, were it true, but it is not; and I will show in a moment that the Minister himself did not believe it. But that is the explanation Deputy Mitchell and Deputy O'Donnell got. Because it was an "inter-union dispute" the Minister for Labour had no departmental responsibility and could not be called to question over the matter.
But the Chair went further and suggested to Deputy Mitchell that, since a period of protective notice was still running, the Deputy would have plenty of time before the expiry of the notice to put down a question in the ordinary way to the Minister for Labour, if he saw fit, and have it answered. Again, I intend no reflection on the Chair. We are all new in the House in the sense that we are all doing new jobs, including the Chair, but that advice to Deputy Mitchell was wildly wrong and misleading—I am sure innocently so—because the state of the Order Paper was such that it could have been foreseen, and was immediately foreseen by deputy Mitchell, that his question could not possibly be reached because the Minister for Labour was so far down the list. The question was not in fact reached until 9th November; and by 9th November it was too late. That was the response Deputy Mitchell got from the Chair; a courteous response, I agree, but a curiously, excessively courteous, bizarrely courteous response from the Chair on 19th October.
I would like to emphasise—I do not want to spend too long on this aspect —that from beginning to end of the industrial relations side of it, when the industrial dispute was foremost, this party in the person of Deputy Mitchell and in the person of Deputy O'Donnell, and in the persons of the rest of us, behaved with absolute responsibility, with absolute quietude and with a sense of reasonable conduct throughout. I want now to draw the attention of the House to the contrast which will jump up in the mind of anyone who can remember the days, and they are not very long ago, when Deputy Fitzgerald, now Minister for Labour, was over here. There was no more strident Deputy in the House, no more strident, noisy Deputy, and bullying Deputy when the Chair would not allow him to say what he wanted to say and go on as long as he liked. I watched from over there when Deputy Fitzgerald bullied the former Ceann Comhairle day after day, shouted and roared him down, wanting to know why the Government were not stopping this factory from closing and why they could not settle the other industrial dispute. While deputy O'Malley, now Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy, was not quite as disorderly, there was never an industrial dispute within his own sphere of operations in which the blame was not laid squarely and loudly at the door of the then Government.
I want to draw a contrast between that behaviour, which we had to confront, and the behaviour this House and the country have got from Deputy Mitchell and Deputy O'Donnell during the industrial relations phase of this disastrous story. That was the situation around the 20th October. The official Government line was: "Yes, this is a dangerous, difficult situation, but it is essentially an inter-union dispute, and we cannot intervene". It was non-intervention as complete as if it were the Spanish Civil War. But everything changed about 21st October. The Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy then said, as the "spokesman" had previously said, that there was an "imminent danger of closure"; and that very day the President of the Chamber of Commerce in his own city made a statement, a very modest statement, plaintively inquiring what had become of the Minister for Labour and why was he taking no interest in this dispute and why was the Department of Labour nowhere to be seen on the front. It was around that time, too, as a matter of journalistic interest, that the Ferenka dispute finally reached the front pages in the third week of October. Now, whether it was pressure from Deputy O'Malley, Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy, who was getting an uncomfortable time in Limerick, or for whatever reason, it suddenly turned out in the fourth week in October that the principle of non-intervention was not so binding after all. Far from being a principle so clear that it could be pronounced from the Chair of this House, so clear that it did not need the political force of a minister to hammer it down somebody else's throat, but could be proclaimed from the Chair here, it turned out to be a good deal weaker than anyone had thought.
The Minister for Labour—everybody wished him well; we did nothing to wreck his initiative; we did nothing to sneer at it—for the first time, about 23rd or 24th October, put up a set of proposals which were not acceptable to one of the parties involved. He held further consultations and put up another set. I have no doubt that those proposals, late and inadequate though they were as a response, were made in good faith. His two sets of proposals did not work. Many a Minister had had that experience before.
From the moment when the Minister's second set of proposals finally were seen to be failures, it is fair to say the Minister for Labour left the scene for four weeks. He left the scene as completely as if he had followed the Minister for Defence, Deputy Molloy, to Malta to a conference or on a jaunt somewhere. There was not a peep from him or his Department for four weeks on the Ferenka matter. Perhaps it is too much to say there was not a peep out of him, because there was a substantial and significant squeak out of him in a different way.
Two nights running, shortly after his proposals had been rejected, on the nights of 29th and 30th October— this is the kind of ministerial weekend that is tough—he attended meetings in Killarney on the former night and Youghal on the latter, and at each of these meetings he made powerful attacks on the defects in our system of industrial relations. In one speech he commented on how we would have to reform and review our whole industrial relations structure. In the other, he spoke about a topic that had been under notice before, the proliferation of unions.
I regard that as a fair representation of the role of the Minister for Labour during this affair. He did not do anything until, although I have no evidence for it, he was pushed into it by his colleague now beside him, or by the Government, in the later days of October. He then made an effort, stretching over three or four days; the efforts failed and he then made petulant and rough speeches about industrial relations. The rest was silence—he then departed the scene completely as if he had resigned. Indeed, I thought at the time that he had resigned, but had forgotten to tell anybody. There was not another word from him on this subject, except an inadequate reply to a parliamentary question at the end of November, when it was far too late. On 28th October, when his initiatives were finally rejected, the Marine, Port and General Workers' Union asked the Minister for Labour for a Labour Court hearing on the main issue, the position of one of their shop stewards, but they got no response and they did not hear anything more, good or bad. Such is my information.
On the 28th October, The Irish Times reported that “it had been learned that the board of ENKA had been in touch with the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy on the previous day and that it was understood the possible closure of the plant might have been discussed.” I will give the House my opinion as to what was discussed and happened on that day. ENKA told the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy that they had come to the end of the road, that they had decided to close down or phase out their operations in Annacotty, and that from then on we were on our own as far as Ferenka were concerned.
I believe the Government knew that weekend, the weekend of the October bank holiday, that the game was up at Annacotty. I am not blaming the Government for that. The blame lies heavily elsewhere. However, at the end of October the Government knew that the game was up. I have reason to know the IDA knew or had reason to know that the game was up. At that stage rumours were percolating that the game was up, and they reached me at the time from three different sources.
That was the turning point. Up to then, all one could accuse the Government of was being slow off the mark in trying to get to grips with an industrial situation which threatened the future of this factory and, indirectly, our whole industrial development. A third phase then began and I regret to say that I consider this phase to have been a scuttling operation. It was a phase during which the Government deliberately concealed the fact that they knew ENKA would not go on at Annacotty. They knew they would not go on, but they asked themselves what they could get out of the situation if they let it run on, if they let the unions and the workers sink further and further into public dis-esteem—what they could get out of it if they did not disclose the fact that ENKA strike or no strike, were about to pull out.
On 1st November, 1,000 men were laid off and on 2nd November ENKA asked for a meeting with the Government. On the following day Ferenka's local boss was reported as being "reluctant to comment on a possible closure". Is that the language a manager of an active factory would have used, even in the middle of a strike? He said he hoped that the ENKA meeting with the Minister would "shed new light on the matter". I am jolly sure that is what he thought, because he knew what was about to come up from ENKA was a proposal for a take-over. He ended up his interview, according to Press reports, with a plaintive animadversion about our "lack of legislation" in industrial relations.
On 4th November ENKA met the Minister and the Minister allowed some details of that meeting to emerge. In a Government leak, we were told the Minister had been "tough and blunt". In an interview with RTE's Mr. McAleese the Vice-President of ENKA, Mr. Hutter, said the Minister had "absolutely excluded" the possibility of a State involvement amounting to a take-over. Then we had the usual "reliable sources" telling us that "the possibility of closure loomed large"—a very substantial understatement.
The offer to allow the Government to take over Ferenka in some shape or from was an unambiguous signal —a child would see it for what it was —that ENKA were about to pull out. Therefore, I cannot understand—this is what most concerns me about this history—why the Government allowed the best part of a month to elapse without letting the public know the true situation. From the end of October or, at the latest, from the 4th November, the Government allowed a charade to go on.
This is how it happened. On 7th November we had the good old "reliable sources" trotted out again. What they "indicated" this time was that the Government were "unlikely to take action". We were told the Government "believed the dispute was an inter-union one and that any settlement should be the subject of negotiations between the workers and the company". We had gone back to the situation of 18th October, although the only attempt that had been made in the meantime by the Minister for Labour was to throw aside this principle of non-intervention which was so indisputable as to be capable of enunciation by the chair of this House. We were then back to non-intervention.
I want a clear answer to this question: if it is true that an inter-union dispute rules out ministerial intervention, why did he intervene in October? On the other hand, if it is not true, if everything I have been saying is a false construction, if the thing was still completely open at the beginning of November, if the factory then could have been saved, why was the Minister for Labour not in there plugging throughout the whole month, instead of being as good as resigned, because no one heard of him or from him?
The scene then shifts a little. Everyone then started to look for the conciliation help which had not been spontaneously forthcoming. On 8th November the Limerick Trades Council wrote to the Minister for Labour asking for a rights commissioner, and they got no reply. On 8th November also the newspaper said that "a Labour Court intiative was expected", and that little story was repeated for a few days after that; it died away plaintively. No Labour Court intiative emerged on 8th, 9th or 10th of November, or thereafter.
On 8th November in the Dáil, my colleagues Deputy Mitchell and Deputy O'Donnell asked the Taoiseach about the Ferenka dispute, and the Taoiseach said that a question and answer session on the subject of Ferenka "might not be helpful". Helpful to what? What was going on that it could prejudice or endanger? What were the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy and the Minister for Labour up to, that might have been knocked off its course by a simple question and answer here in the Dáil, leave alone the kind of shouting and roaring and irresponsible accusations that we got when we were on that side of the House and the Ministers on that bench were on this side? That was the Taoiseach's response; a characteristic one.
On the following day, the 9th, the Minister for Labour said in the Dáil that the situation "was delicate". I would have thought that the Minister for Labour would not recognise a delicate situation if it were served up on a plate. Not only was the situation "delicate" but he was keeping in touch with it hourly". He was failing to keep in touch with one of the two unions that had caused this dispute; they heard nothing from him for four weeks. How was that keeping in touch with the situation on an hourly basis?
For the next ten days there were many meetings in Limerick involving many people; but the one party not in evidence of any kind whatever was the Minister for Labour and his Department. On 24th November the final phase began. The Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy issued what he called a final warning, but of course he knew that a final warning was then too late. On 24th November I asked by a Special Notice Question if the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy would request the Taoiseach's intervention. People in the House and in the Press gallery will recall that the Minister gave me a one-sentence reply; and you, Sir, refused to permit me to ask supplementary questions, in defiance of all precedent, if I may say so with respect. The reply was to the effect that he would not ask the Taoiseach to intervene, although our industrial future allegedly was still at stake. Allegedly, the thing could still have been saved, because he himself appealed to the workers two days later to take the last moment's chance. What was he doing? The Minister for Labour had "asked the Labour Court to make available an industrial relations officer". That was on 24th November. Big deal, when the country had been shouting at the Government for six weeks, and this party had been playing a responsible and patient role in the matter. Big deal, that he was "asking an industrial relations officer" to intervene.
It was clear that weekend that the game was up. The Limerick Trades Council, the weekend before the closedown, tried to get in touch with the Ferenka management at Annacotty and reported that they had "gone to ground". The day after that Mr. Harold O'Sullivan, vice-president of the ICTU, could not locate the Ferenka management. On the same day the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy was making bogus appeals. He knew the factory was gone, and the whole operation from the last weekend in October or the beginning of November was designed, not to save the factory, but was designed to do something far more sinister. It was designed to prevent blame for the ultimate closure lying anywhere except on one party, namely, the unions.
When the closure came, the Leader of my party asked the Taoiseach at the earliest opportunity, on the Tuesday, if he would consider the possibility of the factory being run by a workers' co-operative. The Taoiseach treated this suggestion with the utmost courtesy, and promised to consider it and think about it, and said that it had never been put to him before and took him by surprise. We know that up to 5.30 p.m. Netherlands time, that proposal had not been thrashed out with the IDA and still less with the Dutch parent company. In other words, the show of interest and courtesy which we saw here was another charade.
On the following day the Leader of the Opposition travelled to the Continent, and I can reveal to the House in broad outline that he made a constructive effort to see if he could be helpful in regard to getting the factory reopened and getting back the jobs of the 1,400 men who had been laid off. He was not successful, but he did elicit a telex message from Mr. Wansink, public relations officer of ENKA who has been on Irish television. I hope this will be understood as something that was a response to an initiative on his part to rescue the situation. The telex states:
mr. hutter asked me to send you the following reply: we appreciate your taking this initiative. our decision is final and is based in part on the minister's position over this issue.
So far as we are concerned the facts underlying the decision for liquidation have not changed.
Mr. Hutter is the vice-president.
We do not allege that the Government closed down Ferenka. Such an allegation would be absurd and we do not allege—at least, I do not allege— that they are to blame for the situation which produced this closure; but I do most positively accuse them in the last month of that factory's life of keeping up a charade that it could still be saved. I accuse them of ignoring and neglecting steps which might have been taken, the steps which, as ENKA put it, the Minister had "absolutely excluded," of ignoring the proposals for a take-over—not that I or this party would give that an unqualified recommendation—without giving them a second thought, and of making no counter proposals. I accuse them on the Labour side of doing absolutely nothing to resolve the problem. There was, of course, a show; and the Minister at the end said: "Look, if you do not go back by the weekend the factory will close." He knew it was closed by then, and that nothing that happened over the weekend would make any difference. I accuse them of carrying on this charade, of neglecting to explore the possibilities at Government and IDA level for trying to keep the company there, and of trying to keep the factory there in some shape or form. I accuse them of grossly neglecting the possibilities which our labour legislation offers to try to get this matter settled at a time when it could have made a difference.
That is the worst part of it. I accuse them of that for a sinister reason. I believe that they had a political calculation in mind for doing that. They wanted to leave this situation behind them in such a way that, whoever is blamed, the people who will come out worst will be the unions. Undoubtedly they do deserve a lot of blame; but the Government want to make sure that, wherever else others stand on the scale, the unions will be on the floor. They wanted to make sure of that. That political calculation was in their minds. It has surfaced in speech after speech. It has surfaced at the Fianna Fáil Party meeting. It surfaced the following day in an immense editorial in The Irish Press side by side with a reprint of a speech made by Mr. MacEntee 36 years ago. In speech after speech it has surfaced and there is a political intention here. It may or may not be a sound or praiseworthy political intention; but it is no way of doing business. Only a Government of sleeveens would do business that way and try to achieve a political objective, to condition public opinion, by conducting a charade for a whole month with men's jobs at stake. That is no way for a free republic to be governed; and I hope that this will give the people perhaps the first taste of the quality of this Government and their response to their first real crisis, their first real task, and their first real failure.