Enda and unions miles apart but seeds of new friendship take root
Published 05/07/2011 | 05:00
THERE could've been a barney between the Taoiseach and the president of ICTU right at the start of proceedings at the trade unions' conference in Killarney yesterday after Jack O'Connor mortally insulted Enda during his introduction.
The Taoiseach, Jack informed the packed hall in the INEC, had cycled "120km" around the Ring of Kerry on Saturday. "Miles," whispered Enda to him. "Miles!" exclaimed a visibly impressed ICTU boss.
And in fairness his stamina is indeed impressive. Instead of retiring whimpering into a dark room after cycling a staggering 185km on Saturday, Enda the Energiser Bunny freewheeled around the opening of the Killarney Regatta and the Munster final on Sunday, and then yesterday whizzed along to Killarney's Chamber of Commerce lunch before opening an art exhibition and also a new restaurant and wine bar.
And this was all before his main event of the day -- his first address as Taoiseach to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
And while he met with smiles and handshakes everywhere he went around the Kerry town earlier yesterday, getting a rapturous reception from the 600-plus ICTU delegates was always going to be as arduous a task as cycling up the Connor Pass in 18th gear during a Force 10 gale.
For after years of snuggly social partnership with previous governments led by Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, the trade unions are now trying to figure out if the new Taoiseach is a friend or foe.
Enda has been keeping the trade unions guessing. His Government has stuck with the Croke Park agreement on public service pay and reform and it did re-introduce the minimum wage, but the unions are on red alert over its planned reform of JLCs -- the wage-setting mechanisms for huge numbers of lower-paid workers.
Either way, the unions are all-too aware that the old-style mutual love-in between the social partners is gone the way of Anglo -- dead and buried and not coming back.
And the Taoiseach confirmed the end of the affair on his way into the conference hall yesterday afternoon. Would his Government embrace the old ways of doing business with the unions?
"No, we're not," he said. "But I have committed my Government to continuing dialogue with the trade union movement," he added.
His reception inside the hall was equally non-committal, with polite rather than enthusiastic applause greeting his arrival onto the podium.
However Jack O'Connor's introduction was welcoming (apart from knocking 65km off the Taoiseach's Ring cycle).
In the course of his 30-minute speech, Enda steered a careful course between offering a carrot and brandishing a stick. He hailed the "brilliant performances" of the public servants during the recent visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama, and added that he agreed that there had been "much unfair and unreasonable criticism of the Irish public service over recent years".
He also reaffirmed that the Government was "fully committed" to the Croke Park agreement -- but "we must have the pace and scale of change that makes honouring those commitments possible".
And at a time when the dogs on street are howling over the bloated salaries of fat-cat executives, Enda fired a warning shot over their pinstriped bows.
"Those who neglect to play their part can expect no sympathy from the Government," he declared.
He concluded by informing the audience that "the door is open, if not in the same way as previously".
So Enda wasn't quite delivering flowers and chocolates, but in these fraught and straitened times half an olive branch is better than none at all.
ICTU's general secretary David Begg was gracious in his reply, though he warned the Taoiseach about hasty action over the reform of JLCs and also against getting too cosy with the IMF/EU/ECB overlords who are due back in Ireland shortly.
And what was David Begg's own highlight from Enda's first 100 days in the Big Chair?
"The clip on the ear you gave Shane Ross was the best," reckoned the ICTU chief, referring to the Taoiseach's robust takedown of the deputy in the Dail recently.
The room rocked, and Enda looked chuffed.
Who'd have thought that Deputy Ross would ever inspire the beginning of a beautiful -- well, perhaps not relationship -- but entente cordiale between Enda and ICTU?