Four crew members have barricaded themselves into the engine room of an Irish Ferries vessel in a dramatically escalating labour relations dispute.

Irish Ferries had planned to replace the existing crew of the ‘Isle of Inishmore’ with a new crew of eastern European workers willing to work for a significantly reduced wage.

Foreign sailors waited at the Welsh port of Pembroke as the ferry company sought to regain control of their ship. Meanwhile, Irish Ferries has suspended all sailings between Britain and Ireland.

The four, who are members of the Siptu trade union, have stockpiled food supplies “to see them through until Christmas”, according to one union source.

Crews attached to other ferries were threatening to take similar disruptive action if the company attempts to sail with the cheaper agency staff.

The dispute moved into a new phase on Thursday when the company sent security personnel on board the Isle of Inishmore at Pembroke and another ferry, the ‘Ulysses’, docked at Holyhead.

The company has denied a report that it was considering the use of tear-gas on the men.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Employment Arthur Morgan T.D. said the actions were “shocking” and “scandalous”.

“The company is claiming that these actions are part of the process which will lead to the implementation of its planned voluntary redundancy programme,” he said.

“There is nothing voluntary about this. Workers are being ejected from their jobs. This is reminiscent of the 1913 lockout and represents the greatest attack on the rights of workers that Irish people have seen since then.”

“The Government cannot stand idly by and allow this. The recommendations of the Labour Court have been torn up by Irish Ferries bosses. They have shown absolute contempt for their workers and for the industrial relations mechanism of the state.

“An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern must denounce these actions which will see workers on his own doorstep booted out of their jobs in scenes reminiscent of industrial disputes from another era.”

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© 2005 Irish Republican News