Clashes in FF as Ahern vows 'no going back'
TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern bluntly told taxi drivers last night there was "no going back" in his first public comments since the beginning of the taxi dispute.
Speaking as the widespread disruption continued for a third day, Mr Ahern underlined the determination of the Government to carry through with its liberalisation of the taxi market, even in the face of strong internal dissension within Fianna Fail.
Last night in a separate development, a Government spokesman made clear that the ground-breaking decision had been unanimous, even as junior minister Willie O'Dea openly attacked the new regulations as "disastrous."
Mr O'Dea encouraged furious taxi drivers to "keep the pressure" on his own Government, and resorted to a bitter swipe at his coalition colleague Bobby Molloy. Mr O'Dea referred to Mr Molloy as "very impertinent" and accused the PDs of dogmatism.
The Government spokesman replied by pointing out that Mr O'Dea and other Fianna Fail TDs who were criticising the new measures "had actually voted for them in the Dail this week".
Fine Gael spokesperson Olivia Mitchell meanwhile said the Taoiseach should immediately sack Mr O'Dea for his "disgraceful attempt to shirk collective Government responsibility". The deputy's "pathetic attempt to pander to the taxi lobby was further evidence of Fianna Fail wanting to have it both ways".
Mr Ahern implicitly acknowledged that the changes were causing difficulties within his own party, pointing out that "the preferred Fianna Fail position" had been struck down by the courts.
Striking a conciliatory note in an interview from Zagreb, he said the Government would "address" taxi-driver difficulties over deregulation in a talks process to begin on Tuesday.
But he said that the Government had made two efforts to sort out the shortage of taxis in Dublin since coming into office and "in the cold light of day" taxi drivers would see that the original proposals were very beneficial to existing plate-holders.
The courts had struck down those plans, which would have given an extra plate to every existing plate holder. It was "unfortunate" that the Government plans had been appealed to the courts in the first place, he said.
The preferred Fianna Fail position was to see the existing holders benefiting, Mr Ahern said, but that approach had been thrown out by the High Court. "Our proposals were thrown out, and then we had to move to a new system."
The Taoiseach added: "This issue has a long history, and we have tried at every turn to be as helpful as we possibly could be to existing holders, but we've had to move on.
"We set up a taxi forum when we came into office, which achieved the position of getting 750 additional taxis. But with the increase in economic growth and activity, taxi numbers were still not reaching what we wanted.
"We then announced another 3,000 taxis. The Government agreed to that a year ago. The method we had of doing it was to give every taxi person in the city an additional licence which they could use for their own benefit, or for a family member, an employee, or to lease."
Mr Ahern said he believed this one-to-one system had been fair to individuals with existing licences. "I believe in the cold light of day people will see that it could have been very beneficial. It was our second effort to resolve the issue.
"Unfortunately and I do say unfortunately that position was challenged and lost. We have been very patient for the past 2 years. The options that we had available were struck down and we had to go this way."
Labour spokesman Eamon Gilmore said the decision of the majority of taxi drivers to stay on strike was a direct consequence of the incompetent and inept handling of the affair by the Government.
"While Minister Molloy's handling of this issue has been a disaster, the taxi organisations have won few friends by their tactics over the past few days."
By SENAN MOLONY