Sunday 25 September 2016

Strikes, strife and endless stop-start government - it's the '70s all over again

Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny back in 1977 – there is now more than a touch of déjà vu regarding the way we were and the way we are politically
Enda Kenny back in 1977 – there is now more than a touch of déjà vu regarding the way we were and the way we are politically
'FF and Independents will pull the plug when it suits them and, given the primacy of party politics over national interest on display the past few weeks, the strategy of the opposition has to be to make things as unpleasant as possible for the new government'

Enda Kenny would cut a dash in a pair of bottle-green, high-waist parallels and a snugly fitted Bay City Rollers bomber jacket. Or maybe a Robin Gibb, Bee Gees one-piece with the bell-bottom flares, up which you could hide a six-pack?

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He should turn up to the Dáil next week in full 1970s regalia to a backing track of Slade or, for the funkier among you, why not a camp, be-feathered entrance to a blaring disco, 12-inch version of Sister Sledge's 'He's the Greatest Dancer'?

Make no mistake about it: we are back in the 1970s. Whether your weakness is glam rock, outré disco, prog rock or Leo Sayer, the soundtrack matches side-burns, microphone Afros, catsuits and Babycham.

Close your eyes, forget the Toyota Prius, the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. Sit back and listen to the news this week - the soundtrack of the seventies.

Let's start with the breaking down of national pay bargaining negotiations, then move on to the threat of all-out nationwide transport strikes delivered by leftist men with beards, and then consider a shaky unstable minority government which is charged to deal with all the industrial unrest.

Once you have digested that, think further about still nationalised banks not extending credit and our biggest neighbour possibly going its own pre-EEC way? Back to 1973 anyone?

In many ways, the Luas dispute is simply venting in public what has been happening privately and under the radar for the past year.

CSO statistics reveal that in 2011, in the depths of recession, there were just 3,695 days lost to strike action. By last year, that figure had risen to more than 32,000 days. This is likely to continue.

It's likely that wages are going to rise in the years ahead and this will prompt a titanic struggle between workers and employers, which could easily spill over into wildcat strikes and significant industrial dispute, starting in the public sector and extending out to the private sector.

Does this mean that Ireland is about to experience a significant rise in wages over the course of the next few years?

Yes, I believe that will happen, not because I have any insider knowledge, but because this is how economies behave and this is how humans behave. Expect the trade unions and workers very soon to demand their share of the pie.

And, naturally, if a government doesn't get to grips with expenses like housing costs, workers will clearly demand more wages.

Or if a government increases taxes on workers, it means their take-home pay is smaller and, at the first chance, they will try to get some of their share back.

Obviously, the more a government or political party continues to talk about a recovery, the more it is encouraging this process.

All this talk of the recovery gives workers the permission to push for more wages because they can say, "If the economy is so strong, why don't I get a few extra quid?"

As unemployment falls, wage demands rise. It's called the Phillips Curve in economics and the relationship is as old as the hills.

In a recession, we are too scared to look for higher wages because we know there is always someone on the dole queue to take our job. Over time, as the dole queues fall, this threat diminishes and workers move to get higher pay. This is the cycle.

The implication of this is that the country is facing a summer of discontent as workers agitate, peacefully at first, for higher wages.

The next Taoiseach will have to be able to deal with this new cycle. The economic cycle is turning and industrial relations could be very messy, particularly if workers try to claw back wage increases that they believe were postponed in the recession.

Now consider the next government and how you think it will deal with an outbreak of industrial unrest. Remember, this is a government that is implicitly, if not explicitly, based on delivering favours. Fine Gael knows that it will be hammered in the next election, so it will give anything to every vested interest rather than go to the people again.

Think now about the Independents. They are in the extractive business. They are not thinking about the national interest at all, that is why they are Independent. They are there to extract "rent" for their followers.

Although some may be good people, they are there to deliver more for their own narrow electorate. This means, given a fixed budget, that they have to be successful in extorting cash from other people for the benefit of their own, no matter how "nationally incoherent" any giveaways are.

This expression "nationally incoherent" is one we should dwell on, because it's not just the Independents: Fianna Fáil is at the same "nationally incoherent" game.

This government will not look and smell like a real government, but will be more like a position paper for the next election - a launch pad, if you will.

Fianna Fáil and the Independents will pull the plug when it suits them and, given the primacy of party politics over national interest on display the past few weeks, the political strategy of the opposition has to be to make things as unpleasant as possible for the new government for as long as they can bear it.

Once we reach the point where things are unbearable, the tactic will be to pull the plug, go to the polls and blame Fine Gael for everything.

After all, the thinking is that if Enda Kenny's Fine Gael couldn't win with the economy growing at 6pc, what hope do they have when we are in the middle of mass industrial unrest?

Are we in for a summer of discontent? I fear so.

Do we have a political structure that can deal with and manage the industrial fallout? I fear not.

Welcome to the 1970s, 21st century-style.

Irish Independent

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