Sunday 26 October 2014

Eoghan Harris: Jim Larkin would have lashed the Labour Party

Published 16/09/2012 | 05:00

MEN think about sex every seven seconds. Labour ministers think about the Sunday Independent all the time. As Ruairi Quinn revealed last Wednesday when Jonathan Healy of Newstalk asked him whether Labour meeting at Carton House was sending out the wrong message.

Ruairi Quinn rejected this as "an old-fashioned view of the role of the Labour Party" and reached for the most moth-eaten anecdote about what James Larkin said to a reporter back in 1918. It was then he made the Freudian slip as follows.

"An aggressive reporter -- ironically from what is now the 'Irish Sunday Independent'" -- (corrects himself) "or the 'Irish Independent', referred to his opulent coat and the fact that he was smoking a cigar and wearing a big fedora hat, for which he was famous. And Larkin's famous reply to the inquisitive reporter was that nothing was too good for the working man -- and I tend to support that view."

Let's take a closer look at that reply. Buried deep in it is the Freudian fear that dogs the Labour Party: that going into government to protect the minority public sector meant it abandoned the vast majority of the Irish working class, who work in the private sector -- and that it will pay a terrible political price for doing so.

First, there is Quinn's use of the word "aggressive" to describe the reporter, as well as the conflation of "aggressive reporter" with a Sunday Independent reporter. Apparently, asking awkward questions amounts to aggression.

How could Quinn forget that it was the Irish Independent, William Martin Murphy'S flagship, that gave a hard time to Larkin -- unless he had the Sunday Independent on his brain?

Quinn also implied that Larkin's necessary bravado in defence of the starvlings of the Dublin slums was the the same as the current bluster by the fat cats of today's Labour Party. Much as I like Ruairi Quinn, I must say that stuck in my craw.

But he is not the only Labour minister with the Sunday Independent on the brain. Pat Rabbitte regularly snipes at this paper in the same fashion.

Both of them are very bright, so both know that a free press will finish off the Labour Party at the next general election.

Right now, RTE is the government's fiefdom. Hence the relentless stream of good-news stories about possible goodies from the EU. And the relentless refusal to expose the elephant in the room at home.

The elephant is the crushing cost of public sector pay, pensions and perks. All of which are protected by the Croke Park deal and its grim guardians, the public sector unions and the Labour Party. This brings me to the biggest betrayal in modern Irish politics.

Before the next Budget, the Labour Party will have to choose between cutting the pay or pensions of a minority public sector class -- which enjoys security of employment and adequate pensions when it retires -- and attacking the income of the majority private sector class, which enjoys no security and depends on the State pension.

Naturally, the public sector unions will dismiss this analysis as more "demonisation". But I see it as fair play. I spent most of my life as a socialist and it left a mark. Nothing will change my conviction that James Larkin would have taken on the public sector unions with the same determination he took on the craft unions of his day on behalf of general workers.

The latest OECD figures support my conviction that the current set-up is not fair. Last year, the pay of top civil servants was well above OECD averages. But even below that, nurses are the third highest-paid, and teachers the fifth highest-paid, in the countries surveyed.

The CSO figures show that average pay is 50 per cent higher in the public sector. The public sector unions say this is due to higher skills levels. If this were true, it would be the same story in other European countries. But that is not so.

Public sector pay is lower -- as it should be -- in France, Germany and Belgium, all of them fairly healthy economies.

Guess which countries pay the public sector more than the private sector? Yes, we are on the same losers' list as Greece, Spain and Portugal.

David McWilliams recently summed up the future when he wrote: "Ireland will become an economy where there is a highly profitable multinational sector, a large public sector and a smaller and smaller private domestic economy."

And he put his finger firmly on the crucial political point. "The private sector will be turned into the debt-servicing agency -- a type of extractive industry where rent will be extracted to pay for the public sector."

The Labour Party's last stand for Croke Park is not simply ideological, however. Last Monday, Joe Costello, Minister for Trade, described the deal as "the most successful social contract in the history of the State". He said calls to call off Croke Park were "shortsighted and irresponsible".

Joe Costello was never likely to be a critic of Croke Park. He and his extended family are enmeshed in a web of public sector engagements. After he had regained his Dail seat in 2002, his wife Emer was co-opted on to his city council seat the following year.

In February of this year Proinsias De Rossa stood down as an MEP. Among his reasons, according to the Irish Times, was that "it will also give Emer (Costello, his substitute) a good chance before the next European elections in 2014".

That does not exhaust the Costello clans links to the public sector. After the general election, Emer Costello's sister, Mary Moran, was one of Kenny's nominations to the Seanad. Another sister, Grainne Malone, was nominated as a District Court judge.

Also Joe Costello is number one in the current list of ink-cartridge consumers, ahead of Gerry Adams and Aengus O Snodaigh. Given that he will also retire on a Rolls Royce pension, how seriously should we take his defence of the Croke Park deal?

Let me finish by saying that most of my friends are public servants. Many of them privately agree that there is something wrong with a society where, in the depths of a recession, shop assistants, lorry drivers and clerical workers -- mostly without pensions -- pay the obscene salaries and pensions of senior public servants and retiring politicians, while being paid on average 50 per cent less than public sector employees.

My friends agree that they don't feel good about that gap. But they would still resist any attempt at reform. It is only human to feel that you yourself should never take a hit.

That is why the Fine Gael-Labour Government should not have allowed public sector unions to decide on reform of public sector pay, pensions and perks. It should have taken the tough decisions on its first day. Instead, both parties ducked and dodged and delayed.

But now the day of reckoning is dawning. As the author of a play called The Ballad of Jim Larkin and a lifelong admirer of this least nationalist of Irish socialists, I am certain that if Larkin was around last week he would have been outside, not inside, Carton House.

Giving two fingers to the Irish Labour Party.

Sunday Independent

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