Widespread strikes threatened for Monday in the 26 Counties have been called off after an invitation to the country’s largest unions to resume talks on a new national agreement on economic recovery was accepted.
The talks come after it was revealed that the shortfall in the state’s finances now amounts to some 6 billion Euros.
The state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 7.5 per cent lower in the fourth quarter, the biggest fall since quarterly records began in the 1990s.
Industrial output dropped at an annual rate of 12.5 per cent, with the construction sector showing a decline of 24 per cent.
Financial commentators have warned of a huge task facing the Dublin government, especially as there is evidence of a further sharp deterioration in retail spending and industrial output in the opening quarter of 2009. Double digit declines in GDP have been predicted for the coming quarters.
The crash in the 26 County economy is to be addressed by the coalition government with a special budget of new cutbacks and taxes on April 7.
Efforts are underway to save frontline social, health and education services amid indications that some will be reduced or eliminated in the forthcoming budget. The government is being urged instead to look to the salaries and pensions of ‘fat-cat’ bankers and a broader elite who earned huge profits during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger boom’.
In particular, carers have pleaded with members of the government to fight for them after a decision was made to scrap the National Carers’ Strategy, because of the economic downturn.
Carers had hoped the strategy would have set out a range of measures to make life easier for more than 160,000 people who care for family members. Some 40,000 people in the 26 Counties are full-time carers.
Frank Goodwin, chairman of the Carers’ Association, warned that demands on carers would increase because the number of people aged over 65 years was set to increase by 80 per cent by 2025.
“A rapidly growing older population as well as new nursing home regulations will have a very serious impact on the level of care required in Ireland,” he said.
He said family carers provided more than three million hours of care in the home every week and saved the State at least 2.5 billion Euro a year. For that seven-day a week job, they received a couple of euro more than people receiving unemployment benefit, he said.
Opposition politicians have warned the government had not providing enough information in advance of the budget.
“We are facing into an unprecedented set of decisions. The House needs to have maximum information so that we may subject the options to scrutiny if we hope to make the best choices in these extremely difficult times to protect employment and the economy and build for the future.’’
Speaking during the pre-budget debate, Fine Gael Finance spokesman Richard Bruton said wholly inappropriate decisions had been made year after year because budgetary options were not subjected to scrutiny.
Labour spokeswoman Joan Burton warned that “a misguided exclusive obsession with the budget deficit can compound the very disease it wishes to control’’.
Deficits, she said, could melt away like the snow when the economic spring came, and remarkably fast too.
Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghin O Caolain said that in replies to Dail questions, the Taoiseach had given “an ominous signal that social welfare will be included in expenditure cuts’
The opposition leaders also condemned as “pushing into Never-Never Land” and “hoping it will blow over” a Government decision to delay an investigation into a million Euro bonus payment to Michael Fingleton, a chief executive of the failing Irish Nationwide Building Society, now under state guarantee.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said it was a case of “fingers to the taxpayer”.
Mr Fingleton had secured “an obscene extent of defined benefit pension”.
The only response was “a statement from the Minister for Finance that there is now going to be an investigation and another report inside a month”.
Mr Kenny added, “it’s always the same - another report. Another report another investigation, wait another month and hope it will blow over... It’s not fair, it is not just and it’s not the kind of country we want”.
Mr Gilmore, who said that Mr Fingleton was “known as ‘Fingers’ to his cronies”, questioned why it had to take a month to draw up a report.
“It didn’t take a month in the United States when they discovered that there were very big bonuses being paid in AIG for them to deal with it.”
Sinn Féin finance spokesman Arthur Morgan described Mr Fingleton’s bonus as “simply incredible” and called for the Criminal Assets Bureau to be sent into Irish Nationwide.