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Budget 2010: Cowen to hold firm as unions threaten strikes

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen last night insisted he would push ahead with cutting public sector pay, despite union leaders threatening an "indefinite" series of crippling strikes.

The heightening likelihood of industrial action came as Mr Cowen attempted to bolster his Coalition by sealing a range of deals with Independents and rebel Fianna Fail TDs to back Budget measures.

The Government will this evening try to push through the cuts to 38 welfare payments as it braces itself for a backlash from the public sector.

Unions are lining up a massive campaign of industrial action and lobbying coalition TDs to fight the pay cuts announced in the Budget.

Government TDs will be targeted by public sector workers over the weekend to put pressure on them ahead of the passing of legislation bringing in the cuts next week.

But Mr Cowen insisted the Government and those supporting the Government were "four square" behind the need to take action. The Taoiseach pledged to deliver a €50m hospital extension, a €20m town bypass and more flood-relief funding in return for the support of rebel Government TDs. He even went as far as specifically mentioning a pet project of Independent TD Jackie Healy-Rae in his own Budget speech.

After moving to ensure the Coalition survives the Budget votes, Mr Cowen said the Government intended to go ahead with all the cuts it announced in Wednesday's Budget. "We simply have to proceed as we have set out because the strategy we're trying to complete is about providing security for people, whether in the public or private sector, of course, by having a more competitive economy and a country that can pay its way," he said.

Despite the hardline stance from unions, the noticeably low-key response to the Budget cast doubts over whether there was sufficient public sympathy to justify strikes.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan sparked furore from Irish Congress of Trade Union chiefs with an apparent suggestion that another cut in pay could come in 2011 if reforms in the public sector were not delivered.

In an article in today's Irish Independent, Impact General Secretary Peter McLoone accused the Tanaiste of delivering "thinly veiled threats" of more pay cuts.

Meanwhile, the leader of the country's largest trade union has threatened an indefinite strike in protest at the Government's "cruel" cutbacks.

SIPTU General President Jack O'Connor said a national shutdown across the public and private sector from February was being considered.

"It is open to us to name a day in February and say 'that's the day we're stopping and we won't be starting again until there is some resolution one way or another'," Mr O'Connor said.

The threat came as it emerged that rank-and-file gardai were to press ahead with plans to ballot for industrial action in spite of warnings from Justice Minister Dermot Ahern and Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy.

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Teachers' unions have also refused to attend talks with the Education Minister Batt O'Keefe on cost-saving reforms.

Mr Cowen said the Budget was a crucial step on the road to economic recovery. However, the agencies which set the interest rates on government borrowings gave a cautious welcome to the Budget.

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