I hope I'm wrong but I suspect the stand off between Irish Ferries and Siptu will end in victory for the company. Jack O'Connor, President of Siptu, is certainly right when he sees the dispute as a "defining moment in the relations between employers and workers in this country. It is a moment which challenges everyone, on all sides, to declare on the side of decency, social dialogue and constructive engagement, or on the side of thuggery, brutality and the law of the jungle". Bertie Ahern can bitterly fulminate against the actions of the company but he admits he can do nothing. The company has shown how serious it is by employing private security guards in a way that is reminiscent of Rupert Murdoch's tactics to force News International to move to Wapping in the 1980s.
So are the unions up for a bare-knuckle fight? Will there be flying pickets and blockades of Irish Ferries in other ports? Ever alert to the possibilities of raising the profile of the class struggle, Socialist Party Deputy Joe Higgins says that 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, and that "is a challenge to the entire trade union movement in Ireland - a declaration of war on the wages and working conditions of all workers". Higgins is right and there is little doubt that many other employers will hope that the company succeeds so that they may do likewise in the future. Meanwhile Jack O'Connor says it is difficult to see how social partnership could survive if the Government failed to address the issues at the centre of the dispute, namely "job displacement, exploitation and protection of employment standards", and calls for yet another march.
In this morning's Examiner Michael O'Farrell reminds us that less than a month ago, O’Connor told just such a march not to hang up their walking boots for they may well need them this winter. The takeover of the ferries was a spontaneous act of militancy by the Siptu marine officers in the company but the problem is, according to Gerry Flynn in yesterday's Independent, that about one-third of them and well over two-thirds of the crews are apparently willing, albeit reluctantly, to accept the redundancy package. Siptu has a mandate for immediate strike action but the ferry management is taking a well-calculated risk that it can persuade over 450 staff down the gang-plank before Christmas.
So it's not difficult to see how the script unfolds. The Irish Exporters Association, who have consistently backed Irish Ferries, have already warned about the potential damage to the economy. Exporters along with inconvenienced travellers, freight operators and ferry workers themeselves can be expected to vent their spleens in the media about how this industrial battle is hurting them. Eventually, given that government and union leaders believe there is nothing that can be done if the company persists with its brutal but still legal methods, there will be some sort of appeal for the union militants to stand down their protest in the national interest, especially as we are approaching the season of good will.
We will never know if the legislation to take action on the re-flagging of ships under flags of convenience, proposed recently by the Labour Party, could have been effective because the Government chose to ignore it. For all Jack O'Connor's talk about how social partnership could be seriously threatened by this dispute, he refused to pronounce the process terminated by saying that the union's approach to participating in a new round of 'social partnership' pay talks would not be contingent on a single dispute, albeit a very high profile one. But what credibility would Siptu have if they save partnership by shafting their own members in this dispute?