The Dublin government has been accused of dithering and weakness after it backed away from a potential deal with the public service trade unions to avert strike action.
A one-day strike this week was called off after it emerged that a plan to save 1.3 billion Euro in the public sector pay bill might be replaced by a smaller cost-saving plan involving an extra 12 days of unpaid leave for every public service worker next year.
However, an unprecedented announcement of four billion Euro in cuts and taxes is to go ahead next Wednesday in the annual budget for the 26 Counties, it was confirmed.
The plan for unpaid leave for public workers immediately ran into trouble as Fianna Fail back-benchers threatened to join the opposition parties to block the plan.
Fine Gael blasted the potential deal as “complete capitulation” to the trade unions. Deputy leader and finance spokesman, Richard Bruton, said it was the worst of all possible worlds.
“They’ve bottled it,” he said. “They had a chance to deliver real change and cost reductions in the public sector and they’ve blown it. This deal, if it turns out along the lines currently being described, represents the worst of all worlds.”
Business interests claimed the plan would merely allow the highest-paid civil servants to enjoy additional foreign vacations even as public services were cut.
Although they appeared to have gained the upper hand in the pay deal negotiations, union leaders were also criticised by those on the bottom of the pay scale, who warned they would struggle to make ends meet under the plan.
However, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore welcomed the development, while Sinn Fein said the cuts could still be avoided.
There was also confusion over the potential savings from the plan, with figures ranging from 200 million to five times that amount. There were also concerns over abandoned classrooms, understaffed hospital wards and a potential increase in crime as a result of the additional holidays.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan insisted in the Dublin parliament today that there was no deal with the unions, and that the four billion “adjustment” required to the public finances would take place in any event.
“The Taoiseach indicated that what was brought forward by the unions on Tuesday was inadequate. The unions indicated that they wished to revise and reconsider their proposals and bring them back to the Government. There are ongoing discussions today, so let us await the outcome,” she said.
Ms Coughlan was responding to Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who said the Fianna Fail coalition was “paralysed by an inability to make any decision”.
“There is no confidence, no morale and a wave of depression throughout the country because the Government has no fix on the future. It appears completely unable to act,” he said.
Amid a prolonged economic contraction, the ongoing debate has deeply polarised the country on the issue, with evidence of increasing animosity between public and private sector workers.
David Hughes of the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) claimed the measure on unpaid leave “is the equivalent of mass lay-offs in the private sector” with the only difference being that public sector workers would not receive any social welfare payments.
However, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises (ISME) said that companies in the private sector were furious over the proposed plan and have warned they may withhold taxes if it proceeds.
“The ISME phone lines have been hopping, with members who are so outraged with the decision that they feel they have no option but to withhold taxes in a form of protest at the ongoing charade,” said the association’s chairwoman Eilis Quinlan.
“At a time when small businesses are shedding jobs and struggling to survive, the public sector, once again, are allowed off the hook by a weak kneed and lily-livered Government,” she said.
BRING CHRISTMAS BACK
A protest took place on Tuesday at the gates of the Dublin parliament to demand the reversal of the scrapping of the ‘Christmas Bonus’, the annual payment to long term social welfare recipients at Christmas which was scrapped earlier this year.
Campaigners led by Sinn Fein representatives sang a reworking of ‘Jingle bells’ demanding the restoration of the bonus. The removal of the payment has created hardship for those in receipt of long term social welfare payments and has also undermined the prospects of retailers in working class communities.
Sinn Fein Senator Pearse Doherty called for “an honest debate” regarding the budget.
“In order to do so the Government must acknowledge that there is an alternative to the slash and burn budget which they are preparing to announce next week. The fact is that they are lying to people when they say there is no alternative,” he said.
He pointed to his own party’s set of costed proposals which he said would return more money to the public finances than the government is seeking without targeting social welfare, child benefit or public services.
“The Government would rather tackle old age pensioners, the unemployed, children and those on low incomes than to target the high earners in this state,” he said.