11 December 2005

Sea of support: 150,000 take to streets


By Michael O’Farrell and Ann Cahill

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UP to 150,000 people took to the streets yesterday (Friday) as the Irish Ferries protest mushroomed into the largest public demonstration the country has seen for two decades.

Unprecedented levels of support for the series of eight simultaneous marches across the country surpassed all expectations, leaving the Government under intense pressure to respond.

However, in a move likely to anger many of those who took part, Tánaiste and Health Minister Mary Harney said the action had been “very disruptive”.

Despite widespread public support for the march, Ms Harney said it should not have been held during the week and indicated that all public sector workers who attended should be docked a day’s pay.

However, along the entire route of the 100,000-strong Dublin march there was little sign of frustration as thousands of shoppers and commuters stopped to cheer the protest on.

Similar reactions were reported throughout the country, despite widespread public transport disruption during the afternoon.

Although there had been fears of school disruption in advance of the marches, none was reported subsequently.

Speaking at Dublin’s rally, Irish Congress of Trade Union (ICTU) president Peter McLoone said the union movement wanted to send a very clear message “to Government that we do not want a society that is founded on injustice, blackguardism, and the exploitation of workers”.

ICTU general secretary David Begg told the march there was “a threshold of decency below which the Irish people will not accept anyone being dragged, no matter where they come from”.

“If the Irish people were of a reflective turn of mind they might conclude that it would be safer, more judicious and altogether more honourable to plan for a future where fairness, decency, equality and tolerance governed our workplaces and our society,” he said.

SIPTU president Jack O’Connor said the issues at stake had been raised before. “Less than two years ago we told the Government and we told the employers that there was an issue about exploitation, that there was an issue about employment standards in Ireland and they wouldn’t listen. Well maybe they’ll listen now.

“Here in this wealthy country, we don’t need to have our infrastructure built and we don’t need to have our goods transported and we don’t need to have our services provided by vulnerable migrant workers who are paid slave wages,” he said.

Meanwhile, after four days of intense late-night talks at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) earlier this week, both sides in the dispute are expected to be called back into negotiations on Monday.

However, despite a set of creative measures proposed by the National Implementation Body (NIB) last week, there remains little prospect of a deal as the dispute nears its third week with no progress on the central issue of Irish Ferries’ intention to circumvent Irish labour law by registering its vessels in Cyprus.

Along with other business groups, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) criticised yesterday’s protest, saying it “undermined the industrial relations process in this country”.

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