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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Oct 1996

Vol. 469 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Irish Ferries' Dispute.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Hugh Byrne who has an interest in the matter.

I am sure that is in order.

As regards the various matters that have been raised on the Adjournment I am glad the relevant Minister of State is here for this one.

The decision by Irish Ferries to suddenly cancel the Rosslare to Le Havre service must be challenged by the Government. If Irish Ferries drop this service it will have huge implications for the economy of the south-east. It will disrupt businesses which depend on this service as well as those firms which use the Rosslare link to France. It will also greatly inconvenience the travelling public. Small businesses, in particular, will be badly damaged by this decision.

The cancellation has major implications for the staff of Irish Ferries. The proposals include laying off 200 permanent and temporary staff for seven months. As well as this hardship they are being asked to accept changed working conditions when the full service resumes next year. It is easy to see why staff believe there is a hidden agenda involving an attempt to bring in low priced labour. The Government must immediately seek a meeting with Irish Ferries and establish what is really going on and what agenda is at play.

Irish Ferries came about because of a deal that was done with the State in relation to the B & I Line, a deal that was specially constructed, including favourable terms on the basis that Irish Ferries would retain staff and develop services. Instead, Irish Ferries is trying to row back on this. The Government must challenge it and establish what are the company's motives.

This news was broken to the staff of Irish Ferries through the news media. This seems to be the trend in management dealings with staff. There have been several examples of this — at Packard Electric the workers heard about the closure on the 9 o'clock television news and at Semperit, no consultation took place and little notice was given. Workers have been treated as if they are expendable and have no feelings despite their loyalty to these firms.

In the case of Irish Ferries it appears there was no prior consultation and no attempt to show figures or explain why the decision was being taken, although to my mind the company cannot give such an explanation. Civility and decent treatment towards those with whom you work seems to have flown out the window. I genuinely fear for the future of labour relations if that trend develops. The Minister should use his good offices to seek an immediate meeting with Irish Ferries and bring about a resolution of this matter.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to discuss it with the Minister of State who I am pleased to see in the House.

Wexford has the second highest unemployment levels in the country. It may be difficult to believe but it is a true and unfortunate statistic. Some 400 jobs are under threat if Irish Ferries is allowed to discontinue its service to France on 1 November, 200 of them from Wexford. This means that 200 people will be out of work and 200 wage packets will not go into the local economy. We will also lose out on services provided for lorries, shipping and passengers, such as oil and food. It will have a major negative effect on the local economy.

Rosslare is a state of the art port and has been greatly supported by State money. In any situation involving job losses Ministers from outside the constituency are wheeled in and deputations are arranged to see Ministers in Leinster House. I am beginning to wonder if it is good fortune that we have two Ministers and a Minister of State in our constituency. I have not heard a squeak from either senior Minister, and the best the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, can do is to arrange a meeting for tomorrow morning. I sincerely hope she has something in the pipleine. The situation is somewhat hypocritical given that if we did not have Ministers in the constituency we would be running up to Dublin to meet them, yet with two Ministers representing the county we have not seen either of them. It is time for them to be seen to do something to help their native county.

If Irish Ferries closes down it will forfeit the business to some other company. The Minister of State must agree that when one gives away a business like that it is difficult to recover it. Come next March or April when Irish Ferries intends to resume the service to France, it will be difficult for it to pull back the business which will have gone elsewhere. I am fairly certain that whatever company takes over will be anxious to hold on to it.

Over the past few years Irish Ferries has lost business and when the Minister meets the company's representatives he should ask them why. My own feeling is that their marketing strategy is not aggressive enough and the Minister should put forward that point. In the interests of Wexford, its workers, the credibility of the port of Rosslare and the business we do with the continent, this service must not be allowed to stop. If it takes a State subsidy to put us on a level playing field with other companies servicing the same market then that must be considered also.

Last week I sought a meeting with the Minister for the Marine and with the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, yet to date I have not received confirmation that such meetings will take place. I am greatly disappointed by that. Where the port, to a degree, and the jobs of 200 Wexford people — 400 people in all — are under threat, we should not be dilly dallying. When there were job losses in other areas there was an immediate response with the Minister travelling abroad to secure jobs for the areas affected. In this instance we should hold the jobs we have. Support must be forthcoming in the first instance from the Ministers who represent County Wexford and from the Minister for the Marine and the Minister for Enterprise and Employment.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this matter and Deputy Hugh Byrne. I also thank the many public representatives and groups who have drawn attention to the matter in recent weeks, including the Ministers who represent the constituency of Wexford. As the House is aware, I replied to an Adjournment debate on this general issue on 25 September.

I understand that the employees of Irish Ferries propose to take disruptive action against the company in protest about its decision to discontinue its services between Rosslare and France during the winter months. I am not aware of the nature of the proposed action.

I fully understand the disappointment and anger being expressed by the Irish Ferries staff and I can identify with those who are to be laid off for the winter months. They are the victims of the competitive difficulties being experienced by the company. I do not propose to dwell at length on these difficulties. I have already set out the background in the previous Adjournment debate and my colleague, the Minister for the Marine, Deputy Barrett, has in reply to questions earlier today pledged his full support to pursue a level playing field in relation to State aids and subsidies for the shipping sector in the context of the EU Presidency. The possibility of introducing a special income tax and PRSI regime for seafarers aimed at making their employment more attractive and enabling them to compete better in labour competitiveness terms with the other EU and non-EU seafarers is being examined.

I stated during the previous Adjournment debate that the decision taken by the company was a commercial one taken by a privately owned firm. A decision to take disruptive action would likewise be one for the employees concerned. It would be a matter of considerable regret, however, if such action were to further undermine the company's competitiveness and threaten more job losses. I appeal to all concerned to try to resolve this dispute without disruption of services to the travelling public and our exporters and importers. As an open economy and island nation, we simply cannot afford a serious interruption in the flow of goods and visitors into and out of the country. I appeal, therefore, for calmness and reflection on all sides.

Deputy O'Rourke asked me to meet representatives of Irish Ferries. I have already done so. I had a useful meeting with representatives of the company since I last spoke in the House on this issue. I expressed my concern and disappointment in regard to the action of the company and I remain in contact with it about the issue. I will be meeting with members of the Irish Ferries Action Group tomorrow to discuss the matter.

While responsibility for industrial relations is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, I am concerned about the potential loss of seafaring employment and the loss to the country's shipping services of the direct Irish Ferries link to France this winter. In the longer term I would also be concerned at the implications of this development for Ireland's maritime links with mainland Europe. I will be keeping in close touch, therefore, with future developments in this matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 October 1996.