The Dublin government has been criticised for its response to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, which has cut off air transport to and from the island of Ireland for several days.

While volcanic activity in Iceland is not unusual, the unprecedented crisis has arisen mainly as a result of rare weather conditions which have pitched the plume into the atmosphere above western Europe.

Irish embassies and consulates are inundated with inquiries from Irish citizens stranded overseas, but the 26-County task force on emergency planning has advanced no plan to repatriate Irish citizens by land.

Meanwhile, hotels sheltering visitors to Ireland who have been unable to return home have been accused of increasing their prices to take advantage of the travellers’ plight. Some of the hotels are owned by NAMA, the state agency managing property developers’ bad debts.

With air transport set to be almost entirely shut down until the weekend, ferry services and the Channel Tunnel rail link are unable to cope with the demand.

Aviation experts said European governments’ response to the volcano crisis in general was inadequate and estimated its economic impact to be greater than the September 11th attacks.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin said a consular crisis centre would help those in difficulty abroad, but asked that it should only be accessed by those “in genuine need”, such as those facing medical emergencies.

“The department will be able to provide information and reassurance, but cannot organise individual travel arrangements,” Mr Martin said.

He suggested people with foreign visas due to expire soon could contact their travel agent for advice.

One group of fifty Irish Aer Lingus passengers stranded in Rome for four days were forced to hire a bus in desperation and are attempting to return to Dublin in a gruelling three-day land-and-sea journey.

The travellers had been due to fly to Dublin last Thursday from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. They had actually checked in for the flight and were at the departure gates when their flight was cancelled.

After a night at a hotel near the Vatican, the group were told that “Aer Lingus would not pay any more” and they were “on their own”. The passengers eventually decided to take matters into their own hands and clubbed seven thousand euro together for the extraordinary overland journey.

By contrast, the British government has mobilised its Navy to mount a ‘Dunkirk’ style operation across the channel from France. Airports in Spain, clear of the ash cloud, were earmarked for planes to land and British citizens will then be bussed up to the north of France to the waiting naval ships, according to plans.

In the North, Sinn Fein’s Transport Minister for the Six Counties, Conor Murphy, said that local transport providers were “working hard” to deliver rail, bus and ferry services to aid affected passengers.

Although the eruptions in Iceland have eased, a significant fraction of the northern hemisphere is still covered by the high cloud of ash. However, expert scientists are now predicting the cloud will have dispersed by the end of the week.

26-County Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey said officials were not anticipating any health dangers, but said he did not have any advice if it rained and the ash was washed to the surface.

“It’s not going to be covered in this stuff,” Mr Dempsey said. “There is no indication at the moment. If the wind changes, if the weather conditions change, then that might actually change. But at the moment we shouldn’t be trying to create a scenario where people are going to be terrified.”

* Potential air travellers are advised that, while flights in some directions to and from Ireland may still go ahead in the next few days, no attempt should be made to travel without a confirmed booking.

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