Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

Rough Industrial Relations Waters for Irish Ferries: A Case Study Comparing U.S. and Irish Labor Dispute Law

Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

Rough Industrial Relations Waters for Irish Ferries: A Case Study Comparing U.S. and Irish Labor Dispute Law

Article excerpt

What we have got here is failure to communicate...

Prison captain, played by Strother Martin (1967 American movie "Cool Hand Luke")

The Irish Ferries trade dispute in late 2005 was the epitome of a failure to communicate. The company's plans to outsource crew positions to lower-paid Eastern European workers and the response of the company's two unions gave rise to one of the most contentious labor disputes in modern Europe. Clearly the nadir of industrial relations, this conflict provides a classic study, from the perspectives of both labor and management, of how not to negotiate effectively.

It is instructive to analyze Ireland's labor legislation vis-à-vis the more developed comprehensive body of labor-management law in the United States. Most American labor lawyers would concur that such a dispute would not have reached such a volatile and nearly irreparable stage, were the applicable Irish law similar to the cohesive U.S. industrial relations statutes. Since the European Community has largely deferred to the domestic level the determination of how industrial strife is addressed, most of the sources of law in the Irish Ferries dispute were those established by the Irish legislature. Laws on the Emerald Isle applicable to collective bargaining agreements and the enforceability of labor dispute decision-making bodies contrast starkly with the counterpart legislation in the United States. Additionally, government intervention in labor relations in Ireland has traditionally played much more of a partisan role than is characteristic of the role played by the United States Congress and U.S. courts.

Part I of this article summarizes Irish labor laws. Part II details the sequence of events and final resolution in the Irish Ferries dispute. Part III discusses the primary differences between Irish and American labor laws and posits how this dispute would likely have been resolved had it occurred in the United States.

It is at least arguable that this industrial relations fiasco would have been less protracted, less fractious, less costly, and more expeditiously settled under U.S. labor laws.


Historical perspective. The Irish are a people borne of strife and discrimination. From 1171, when England's King Henry II declared himself King of England, until the partition of Ireland and her attainment of Free State status in 1920, the Irish were under British subjugation. Indeed, the aim of England was to eradicate Irish culture and religion and to superimpose a legal system and church structure that was English.

This goal took many statutory forms, beginning with the Statutes of Kilkenny. This 1366 legislation was designed to obliterate all vestiges of Gaelic and Celtic influence: the Gaelic (Irish) language, wearing of clothing that reflected Irish culture, and implementation of the Brehon laws.1 This legal system was based upon statutes enacted by brehons, or lawyers. The several Irish kings-about 150 in number-acted as courts to construe and apply these laws.2

Queen Mary and her younger sister and successor Queen Elizabeth I introduced the plantation system in the 16th century, divesting the Irish of ownership of lands by transferring these properties to British gentry.3 Mary became known as "Bloody Mary" because of her systemic executions of Irish chieftains.4 Through this plantation program, the Irish became indentured servants on land that was rightfully theirs.

British historian Paul Johnson has written that Oliver Lord Cromwell, the military uncrowned "king" of England during a respite from successive monarchy rule, bears the distinction among all English military leaders of having taken stern, and even ruthless, measures to enforce the laws to achieve Irish subservience to English rule.5 Queen Elizabeth I's Protestant university, Trinity College Dublin was founded in 1592 as Ireland's only institute of higher education. Although there was no explicit exclusion of Irish Catholic students, anyone admitted to study at Trinity was required to subscribe to the Protestant Church of Ireland and to take communion in the Church's rites, thereby denouncing their Catholicism. …

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