DEFENDING the fairness of the €3.5bn austerity Budget he and Michael Noonan inflicted on this country, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin wrote: "It is a source of regret to the Government that we were unable to protect all payments during this Budget. But the decisions were taken in the interest of fairness. Were other decisions taken, no doubt we'd be talking about them now."
Nowhere in that 1,132 word article two weeks ago in the Sunday Business Post did Mr Howlin make mention of the 'elephant in the room' that is the Croke Park deal.
Given the loud criticisms of Croke Park by pretty much everyone in Fine Gael, business leaders, the private sector and virtually everybody who isn't a member of the Labour Party, Howlin's failure to even admit that many of the harsh, unjust and unfair cuts in the Budget to the poor, the weak and the elderly were as a result of the retention of Croke Park spoke volumes.
That up to 80 per cent of the education and health budgets were "off the table" was the most significant factor in the shaping of the Budget and was fundamentally unfair, and meant the remaining 20 per cent of those budgets were eviscerated.
More than any other issue, the Budget has exposed the dilemma for Fine Gael in its decision to enter into government with the Labour Party, because the Croke Park deal is choking social solidarity.
Since then, we have had the start of the negotiations on a new deal, targeting a further €1bn in savings above
the €3.3bn already earmarked under the controversial pay agreement.
What must be remembered is that the unions will seek to dominate the news agenda throughout the negotiations with their views.
They were at it from the off.
On Monday, after a meeting which lasted less than an hour, in which only broad strokes were discussed, unions leaders including Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and Eoin Ronayne of the Civil Public and Services Union were able to say that a deal would not be possible on the "draconian" terms outlined by management.
Management did indicate a host of savings measures, including pay cuts to some senior grades, increased working hours, the elimination of increments, a reduction in premium and overtime rates and reforms to supervision and substitution payments for teachers.
While compulsory redundancies were not explicitly mentioned, it was put to the unions that management wanted to be able to offer exit packages to workers who refuse to be redeployed.
Separately, as I reported last weekend, Brendan Howlin is also seeking cabinet approval for a new voluntary redundancy scheme for several thousand staff in the areas of agriculture, health and education.
There is some acceptance within the Government that a more ambitious voluntary redundancy scheme may be needed to reach the targets in time. Then on Thursday, unions were told where the pay-bill cuts will have to come from, sector by sector. The lion's share are aimed at health workers who will have to deliver €420m of the €1bn required, proportionate to its size relative to the overall public sector.
The education sector is being asked to provide €350m in savings, while the civil service, non-commercial semi-state and the prison service, which account for 14 per cent of the total bill, have to cough up €120m in savings by 2015.
A further €90m will be required from the local government budget pay bill, €60m from gardai and €35m from the Defence Forces.
"We have had a very good set of meetings this week. On Thursday, we set out in every sector what the ask and what the requirements are. We have an intensive week ahead of us next week but I think there is an understanding of what must be achieved. We are working towards that in a horizon that is fairly tight because the savings must begin this year and that is understood by all participants," Mr Howlin told me.
Given the events of last week – and with the admission by the unions that they may have to surrender incremental pay increases in order to protect core pay rates – there is some hope at last for the kind of reform in the public sector that Howlin and his Government have long since promised. Indeed, the sort of cuts now being considered should have been discussed during the first Croke Park deal when it was negotiated in 2010. To his credit, it must be said that Mr Howlin did not create the first Croke Park deal, but nor did he seek to renegotiate it two years ago when he took office.
Defenders of Howlin and his young Secretary General Robert Watt say they have achieved more reform in the last 18 months than was achieved in the past 20 years. They point to the fact that no civil servant is paid more than €200,000 (even though some notable exceptions exist across state companies), new garda rosters, improved efficiencies, shared services, longer working weeks, better procurement and of course the continued absence of widespread industrial unrest.
They also pointed to pay rises in multi-nationals and even this weekend in Dunnes Stores, as evidence that the private sector is doing far better than portrayed in papers like the Sunday Independent, which, they feel, is unfairly critical of the public sector pay agreement.
This new deal could be the most important thing Brendan Howlin does during the lifetime of this Government, as its impact on Irish political life and Irish society will be immense.
It is no coincidence that the public opinion is turning against this Government. With the largest political majority in history, it also had the strongest mandate ever to implement the radical reform the Irish people so desperately wanted. This is a mandate it has so far squandered.
These new intensive negotiations, which begin again in earnest tomorrow, represent the last chance for real reform in the public sector.
It should be a reform that really puts the taxpayer and the customer, not the worker or the system, first. It should be a reform that demands best practice and rewards innovation, not mediocrity and obfuscation.
But most importantly, it should be a reform that is genuinely grounded in fairness, and not in elitism and avarice.
Recent troika criticisms about the inequities within the system will be ringing loudly in the Government's ear and Mr Howlin must now deliver. It is not rocket science, but it is fair, and fairness, Mr Howlin, is all this country wants.