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Poll meltdown for Cowen, Gormley

In a catastrophic week which has seen unemployment hit a 10-year high, the popularity of the Government parties and their leaders is taking a hammering, according to the latest Sunday Independent/Quantum Research nationwide poll.

As the Government prepares within weeks to implement further spending cuts of around €2bn, the findings will do nothing to calm the nerves of anxious TDs in Fianna Fail and the Greens who almost brought down the Government in October in the face of public revolt against less severe cutbacks.

The poll of 500 people, carried out on Friday, shows that in the immediate aftermath of the country's reputation as a location for high-technology industry receiving a devastating setback, with the loss of 1,900 jobs at Dell, the popularity of Fianna Fail (28 per cent) down eight points since our last poll in August 2008, and the Greens (two per cent) down four points is worst hit.

Satisfaction with the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen (35 per cent), down 10 points, and John Gormley (39 per cent), down six points, is also haemorrhaging, in stark contrast to the fortunes of the Opposition parties.

Fine Gael (27 per cent), up four points and Labour (18 per cent), up six points, have emerged as clear favourites to form the next Government.

Their respective leaders, Enda Kenny (35 per cent), up four points, and Eamon Gilmore (58 per cent), up 17 points, also seem to have consolidated favour with the electorate.

The surge in support for Labour, and particularly its leader, Mr Gilmore, comes in the aftermath of that party's trenchant and increasingly personal criticism of the Government and its leaders.

As the economy continues to decline at an alarming rate, the poll has also picked up on the public's fear, with a huge swing in support of the Lisbon Treaty: 55 per cent (up 16 per cent since we last asked that question in our December 12 poll) now say they will vote Yes, while 37 per cent (down seven per cent) say they will vote No, while 15 per cent are undecided (24 per cent in December).

After months of indecision, the Government has finally arrived at the point where it must take drastic measures to prevent further decline of the economy to the point where prolonged damage of up to 10 years may occur.

Yesterday, there were reports of a difference of opinion between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, in relation to the speed and extent of remedial action.

The battleground, therefore, has been drawn around the issue of public sector reform, the debate centring on the issue of job losses and pay cuts.

The Taoiseach's preferred option of negotiating such reform through the mechanism of Social Partnership showed signs last night of developing into a protracted affair. Mr Lenihan, meanwhile, is urging all haste.

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Yesterday, SIPTU General Secretary, Jack O'Connor said that: "The unilateral imposition of cuts in rates of pay will meet with stout resistance from trade union members generally."

Mr O'Connor's comments followed similar remarks on Friday by Peter McLoone, who assured his 60,000 public sector members that he "will not negotiate public service pay cuts with the Government".

The Finance Minister, however, has said that both numbers and pay in the public sector would have to be looked at, while the Taoiseach has only said such issues would have to be "discussed" with the social partners.

Yesterday, Fine Gael finance spokesman, Richard Bruton sought to exploit the prospect of a difference of emphasis between the two most senior people in Government. He said: "The promise of a mini-Budget by Minister Lenihan at the end of January was undermined by the clear lack of co-ordination with the Taoiseach's office."

However, Mr Bruton also expressed doubt about Mr Lenihan's apparent firm intention. Mr Bruton said: "If I had a euro for every promise of action from the Government to tackle the shocking deterioration in our public finances he would have amassed a small fortune in the last six months alone."

In an article in today's Sunday Independent, former Labour leader, Ruairi Quinn also raises questions over the Government's approach through Social Partnership. He says: "The broad outline of what needs to be done should be spelt out and debated in Leinster House. The implementation of some of the measures can be negotiated, in detail, with the Social Partners where necessary."

There are now more than 290,000 unemployment claimants on the Live Register. A total of 22,777 people signed on for the first time last month, as companies shed staff before Christmas.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) said that the estimated unemployment rate has now reached 8.3 per cent, up from the November estimate of 7.8 per cent.

It is now feared that the rate of job losses will accelerate further, with a massive redundancy announcement at computer manufacturer Dell and hundreds of jobs in the balance at Waterford Crystal and Tara Mines.

The number of people on the Live Register is expected to surpass the 300,000 mark for the first time as early as next month and economists expect the unemployment rate to reach 10 per cent by the middle of the year.

Following an €8bn fall in tax revenue, the Government has now warned that revenues will fall by a further €4bn this year to €37bn, before remaining at that figure for 2010.

Mr Lenihan is to produce an emergency plan to cut €2bn off this year's spending as agreed in the October Budget.

Tax revenues, now back to 2005 levels, will not return to last year's disastrous performance until 2012, and they will bring in just €42bn the following year.

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