updated 4/5/2005 8:36:17 AM ET 2005-04-05T12:36:17

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern directed government buildings to fly the Irish flag at half-staff Monday in honor of Pope John Paul II, but he stirred arguments by refusing to declare a national holiday for the pontiff’s funeral Friday.

Ahern faced widespread calls to authorize a “national day of mourning” in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, to coincide with the pope’s funeral. Ireland observed such an exceptional holiday following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The premier said government employees and teachers would be allowed to take Friday off “to attend an appropriate service,” and he urged private employers to permit the same privilege. He said the country’s 4 million citizens should use the coming five days “to personally reflect on the life and contribution of Pope John Paul II.”

Employers accused people of trying to exploit the pope’s death to get out of work, while labor unions accused Ahern of making things tougher for working parents by letting schools close.

“As religious ceremonies can be attended before or after work, there should be no disruption to business,” said Turlough O’Sullivan, director general of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, which represents more than 7,000 employers.

But the Irish Congress of Trade Unions accused the government of putting the country’s economy above the spiritual health of its people.

The congress said in a statement that a holiday “was favored by the vast majority of Irish people. Economic considerations should not influence this decision. The fact that schools are to be allowed to close could cause real difficulties for working parents, who are themselves expected to work as normal.”

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