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Saturday 16 February 2019

Derailed talks deal Cowen a crushing blow

Taoiseach's summer holidays take precedence as unions and employers blame each other

JODY CORCORAN and  DANIEL McCONNELL

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen has been dealt a further crushing blow to his crumbling authority following the collapse of the National Pay Talks -- a development unprecedented in the 21-year history of social partnership.

The breakdown of the talks at 4am yesterday may now lead to industrial instability throughout the country, a prospect which could threaten foreign investment in Ireland at a time when the economy is already deep in crisis.

As he heads off on holiday this weekend, a beleaguered Mr Cowen leaves behind the wreckage of his disastrous first three months in charge.

With the economy sliding into a recession from which it may not emerge for years, and with the Lisbon Treaty referendum resoundingly defeated, Mr Cowen will ruefully consider the "poisoned chalice" handed to him by his wily predecessor, Bertie Ahern, the masterful negotiator of pay deals.

But yesterday, following the collapse of the talks, Fine Gael's finance spokesman Richard Bruton sought to focus the blame squarely with the Taoiseach. He told the Sunday Independent that the failure was "indicative of the policies under Brian Cowen" which were now "quickly unravelling".

As he takes refuge with his family at a secret holiday destination, on Taoiseach will also be aware that his popularity with the electorate continues to fall.

The latest Sunday Independent/Quantum Research telephone poll, conducted before the collapse of the talks, has found satisfaction with Mr Cowen down a further two points to 50 per cent -- a massive 20 per cent fall since his election as Taoiseach in May.

Mr Cowen is primarily losing support among urban voters, where the effects of the economic crisis are being most severely felt. In the midst of further unremittingly gloomy economic analysis last week, it emerged that in the past month alone another 17,000 people have lost their jobs -- that's more than the entire population of the Taoiseach's native town of Tullamore, Co Offaly.

The pay talks had offered the Taoiseach an opportunity to restore some measure of control as the country lurches from crisis to crisis.

With his Tanaiste, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan, Mr Cowen had returned to Government Buildings on Friday afternoon as the talks between employers and unions entered a crucial phase, hours from deadline.

The Taoiseach stayed at his desk into what his spokesman said were the "early hours" of Saturday morning -- directly, but ultimately ineffectually, involving himself in the process as the talks stumbled towards failure.

Yesterday, Construction Industry Federation director-general Tom Parlon told the Sunday Independent: "At 2am we thought we were close to a deal. We didn't seem to be too far away."

Mr Cowen and Ms Coughlan had hoped that their hands-on approach would push employers and unions towards a deal. But those hopes were dashed at around 4am when the talks broke up amid bitter recriminations.

All Mr Cowen could offer was another "review", this time of the wider provisions of the current Towards 2016 Agreement. A "review" of the failure to win the Lisbon Treaty referendum is already underway.

Mr Cowen also "indicated" to the parties at the talks that he "may" wish to discuss with them at the end of August -- that is, when he returns from his holidays -- the arrangements which will now operate in respect of pay and related matters in the period ahead.

But as the Taoiseach retired to bed, the main unions and employers were already starting to throw strongly-worded claims and counter-claims at each other -- each blaming the other for the failure of the talks.

Notwithstanding Mr Cowen's statement that the parties had affirmed their commitment to the principle of the orderly conduct of industrial relations and the maintenance of industrial peace, the main unions were yesterday morning threatening to lodge immediate pay claims with employers.

Unless Mr Cowen and Tanaiste Mary Coughlan can come up with a formula to rescue the talks process -- a prospect which seems remote at this stage -- then the country will face into the most turbulent era of industrial relations since 1987.

Labour's Enterprise spokesman, Willie Penrose yesterday acknowledged that the Taoiseach had indicated to the social partners that he may wish to meet them at the end of August to further discuss the situation.

"I believe that full advantage must be taken of this, and of any other opportunities to make progress that may arise," he said.

But ICTU general secretary David Begg said that private sector unions would now be lodging pay claims with individual employers. He said there were no further talks planned or scheduled with Government or employers.

Richard Bruton of Fine Gael sought to link the failure of the pay talks to Mr Cowen's stewardship of the country's finances.

"I am very disappointed with the outcome of the pay talks," he said. "But it is indicative of the policies under Brian Cowen that are now quickly unravelling.

"It is very worrying for the economy -- but not very surprising, given the high-cost/ high-inflation situation Mr Cowen perpetuated as Minister for Finance. We must now look to the suggested review to see if any progress can be made," he concluded.

It is understood that employers offered a six-month pay pause for public and private sector workers and a 12- month freeze for construction workers, followed by a 2.5 per cent pay increase for six months, and a further 2.5 per cent for nine months. The unions emphatically rejected the employers' offer.

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