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Split looming as FG deputies come out to attack Labour

Two Fine Gael TDs have come out strongly in support of embattled Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton and to round on Labour, in what amounts to an escalation of hostilities in the Government.

Billy Timmins and John Deasy also effectively declared the government honeymoon to be over and said the Cabinet had to get on with implementing difficult decisions.

While the Government is anxious to play down reports of a rift, the events of last week have highlighted policy differences between the coalition partners that are likely to cause future instability.

With the imprimatur of the Tanaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, a litany of Labour ministers and TDs last week sought to undermine a proposal by Mr Bruton to review employment regulation orders and wage-setting mechanisms.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, also seemed to isolate his minister when he accused Mr Bruton of being on a "personal agenda"; but he has since said that he and Mr Bruton were "singing off the same hymn sheet".

Labour was particularly angry at a suggestion by the Enterprise Minister that the law on Sunday premium payments for workers in certain sectors be changed. Labour TD Tommy Broughan said the wage row was "a red-line issue" for his party.

Yesterday, however, Mr Timmins said: "There can no longer be any red-line issues, only a bottom line of ensuring that we get the country back on track.

"If we fail to do this someone else will do it for us."

He added: "Core values will have to be sacrificed and the lead will have to be given in radical thinking. The good cop/bad cop routine practiced for the last decade will only result in failure."

A Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research telephone poll found more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of people disagreed with Mr Bruton that lower-paid workers in the service industries should take a substantial pay cut to boost competitiveness.

Yesterday, however, David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland, said the changes proposed by Mr Bruton would help create up to 7,000 jobs.

"The reforms being proposed by the minister are the right ones for job retention and creation. There is a real jobs dividend on offer if these reforms are pushed through," he said.

Mr Deasy said: "Every TD in the Dail knows Richard Bruton is right. This is only the start of the horrendous decisions that have to be made. Businesses, hotels and restaurants are closing en masse. It's not just about creating jobs, it's actually about retaining jobs."

And Mr Timmins said: "Everyone must take a hit and those who can afford to pay more should do so -- but everyone will have to make some sacrifice."

Mr Timmins also raised doubts as to whether the Government could honour a commitment not to cut social welfare payments and increase income tax. He also hit out at "restrictive practices" in professions and "inexplicable bureaucracy" in the public sector.

The Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll has found the country divided 50-50 on whether social welfare payments should also be cut.

Mr Deasy warned: "When it comes to the issues we face, ministers need to be prepared to take the sort of decisions which may mean they will never be re-elected again.

"In doing so they might actually be pleasantly surprised because the people are aware of the situation and desperately want leadership."

In a clear indication that Fine Gael TDs believe the honeymoon to be over, Mr Timmins added: "Drinking tea from a china cup with a remarkable Queen was a welcome diversion and President Obama's Moneygall montage should bring its own benefit. But it's back to the trenches now. Let us hope we will deal with the many difficulties ahead with the same good spirit."

Mr Timmins added: "The country has had a couple of good weeks, so too the Government and especially the Taoiseach... We now must move on and, to paraphrase Churchill, the dreary steeples of the banks and public finances are still with us."

He said: "We cannot continue to spend more than we have. The public elected the new Government to get the country working again. It was never going to be easy.

"This Government cannot afford to watch its political flank, whether locally or nationally, and its actions can only be informed by the common good and what is required to take control of our own destiny."

In relation to Mr Bruton's proposal, Mr Timmins said: "Perhaps the minister could have been more sensitive in the release of the information. Perhaps he could have explained that it is just one of the many measures that will be needed to drive costs down, to make us more competitive, to enable the creation of more jobs and ultimately put us all in a letter place."

But he added: "The Labour backbenchers who banged out statements might reflect how they can assist the process."

Mr Timmins also said: "The Programme for Government commits to no decrease in welfare rates and no increase in personal taxation. I am not sure this can hold.

"I have been a long-time advocate of 'workfare' instead of welfare. Equally we cannot have restrictive practices in the professions, neither can we have such inexplicable bureaucracy in our public administration."

The intervention of the two well-known Fine Gael TDs comes days after the first open rift between the coalition parties since taking office.

Labour TDs are reported to have resented statements that were made on a variety of issues by Fine Gael ministers recently.

Speaking in Brussels, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said people should be "very careful" about tampering with the wages of low-paid workers.

He said the Cabinet gave Mr Bruton approval to publish the Duffy-Walsh report on proposed employment reforms, but the only decision was to release the report.

Ministers awaited a formal proposal from Mr Bruton at the end of a short consultation with employers and unions, he added.

He said Mr Bruton had left his colleagues in no doubt that he had views on the matter himself and would "guide" the discussion. "He's the minister seized of the issue and let him come back to government with whatever proposals he thinks are right.

"And the Government will assess them and decide," Mr Rabbitte said.

A series of official Labour statements, sanctioned by Mr Gilmore, sought to undermine Mr Bruton's plan.

Labour TDs Michael McCarthy, Colm Keaveney, Robert Dowds, Sean Kenny, Derek Nolan and Kevin Humphreys -- all newly elected -- criticised Mr Bruton on his proposals.

Mr Humphreys said Mr Bruton should be concentrating on cutting the wages of lawyers and doctors instead.

"If Minister Bruton is genuinely concerned about making Ireland more competitive by cutting fees and salaries, he really should start at the top," he said.

Mr Dowds accused Mr Bruton of a "drive to undermine" the wages of the lower-paid. Labour TDs Aodhan O Riordain and Mr Keaveney also raised the issue on the order of business in the Dail.

Also yesterday, Fianna Fail environment spokesman Niall Collins called on Labour to clarify its position on the flat-rate utility charges which the Government plans to introduce next year.

"Tommy Broughan has said that the wage row is 'a red-line issue' for Labour. I am asking Labour TDs if hitting households with flat rate utility charges, a move which is akin to the reintroduction of domestic rates, is also a red-line issue for them."

Sunday Independent

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