Opposition train sights on Leo Varadkar and Shane Ross

As Leo Varadkar and Shane Ross are quickly learning, it’s easier to grumble about a train’s location while waiting on the platform than to be responsible for getting it there in the first place.

As the 24-hour rail strike caused havoc for more than 155,000 regular commuters yesterday, another slower derailment was at risk of taking place far closer to Leinster House.

While to date the issue has been limited to opposition criticism, unless the matter addressed before the second of five strike days — next Tuesday — frustration from voters in key constituencies means it could soon turn into a political crisis of the Government’s own making, or, more specifically, Mr Varadkar’s and Mr Ross’ own making.

Both are increasingly being targeted by political rivals, who are intent on blaming the pair for not addressing the problems that led to the strike in the first place.

Before rising to their respective positions of Taoiseach and Transport Minister, the leader of Fine Gael and de facto leader of the Independent Alliance were always quick to explain how they would any strikes if they ever in a position of real authority.

During the Fine Gael leadership race, Mr Varadkar told reporters at the launch of his policies at Smock Alley on May 22 that strikes would no longer be a problem if he was in charge.

With one eye as ever on a headline and the other, at the time, on wooing support, Mr Varadkar said confidently that while strikes would not be banned under his watch, he wanted access severely limited to areas that are not “essential services”, adding “if both sides go to the Labour Court, it should be settled”.

The comment inevitably led to union outrage, with Mr Varadkar forced to reject claims by National Bus and Rail Union representative Dermot O’Leary that the Taoiseach-to-be was “Thatcherite”.

However, instead of moving to assuage any ‘misunderstanding’ between the incoming Taoiseach and unions, who know how to pack a punch, little appears to have been done to minimise the issue, contributing — opposition parties have claimed — to the current industrial relations problem coming down the tracks.

Mr Ross has equally been shy of voicing an opinion on relations disputes, with regular Sunday newspaper columns before the last general election repeatedly lashing out at the stand-offs and various transport ministers, insisting action was needed.

However, in Government, the once regular comments have been replaced by what opposition parties claim is “a silence” and an attempt to avoid responsibility, firstly, in the Luas strike row, then Bus Éireann, and now with Iarnród Éireann.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Ross have pointed out it is up to Iarnród Eireann management and striking workers to resolve their dispute and, given the dispute’s complexity, this is understandable.

However, due to their previous high-profile comments on strikes and the political need to resolve the matter quickly before it begins affect more than ‘just’ the transport system, the relative silence from Mr Varadkar and Mr Ross leaves the Coalition open to becoming collateral damage should the stand-off descend — as feared — into a political train wreck.

Over the past 48 hours, the first signs of this appeared, with Fianna Fáil transport spokesperson Robert Troy taking aim at the Government, and Mr Ross in particular, saying the strike is part of “a growing trend of industrial unease since Ross has taken office”.

The comments may be unfair, due to the practical realities of industrial relations, but given the strong opinions of Mr Varadkar and Mr Ross before they were in charge, there is unlikely to be much sympathy from voters left waiting on the platforms.


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