Stormont ministers line up to condemn P&O as Stena Line announces additional crossings to Scotland

Stena Line will add more ferry crossings from Northern Ireland to Scotland to mitigate the harm caused by P&O Ferries suspending its services after laying off 800 staff.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the extra sailings will take place from Tuesday, March 22, and will help retailers transport goods

He described Stena Line as having "stepped up" in the wake of the P&O surprise cancellation of routes last week.

"Reprehensible", "disgraceful" and "callous" - these are some of the terms used by government ministers to describe P&O since the scandal hit headlines last week.

The way the workers, including fifty from Northern Ireland were laid off, has caused outrage across all parties in Stormont uniting political adversaries in their condemnation of P&O.

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said that neither he nor anyone in his department were given any warning about P&O's sudden sacking of employees, including on its Larne to Cairnryan route.

"I regard their actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book, and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of their loyal and most diligent workforce," he said.

He added: "The stories I heard of staff being escorted off ships, by men in balaclavas, carrying handcuffs, was as sinister as it was outrageous."

Across the benches Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd MLA agreed, admitting: "I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the strength of your statement. It is as strong a statement as I have heard from someone in your position and from your party in relation to employment law. So well done on the statement. What we need to see now is also strong actions."

The P&O sacking cuts across many Stormont departments. Gordon Lyons said that the Minister for the Economy has responsibility for employment law but that P&O could still change its course.

"Not only do we stand ready through the labour relations agency to intervene but if P&O fail to take me up on that offer locally, I've already asked my officials to investigaet what remedies we may have breaches of our devolved employment law", said Lyons. Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy said he has raised the issue during a meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

While the Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said her department officials where working with Economy and Agriculture to help minimise risk to supply chains.

It comes as P&O has told customers it can't help them transfer to an alternative operator on the Larne to Cairnryan route.

The operator's sailings on the route remain suspended since last Thursday (17 March).

P&O, in a tweet on Monday, advised its customers to seek out alternatives for themselves.

Stena Line is the other company sailing to Cairnryan from Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, it’s been reported Government ministers knew about P&O Ferries’ plan to slash 800 jobs before staff were informed but were told by officials it would ensure the firm remained “a key player in the UK market for years to come”.

The Sunday Times newspaper said it received a leaked memo apparently written by a senior Whitehall official which tried to “justify” the mass redundancies, stating that “without these decisions, an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs”.

The memo, which is claimed to have been sent before 800 P&O staff were told of their jobs being lost on Thursday, adds the changes “will align them with other companies in the market who have undertaken a large reduction in staff previously”.

Meanwhile, the RMT Union claims that the company planned to replace staff on P&O ships at Dover with agency workers on £1.80 per hour – which is legal under rates of pay set out by International Transport Federation/International Labour Organisation.

The UK minimum wage is £8.91 per hour.

It is understood the same arrangement can not be put in place at Larne.