Thursday 14 November 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Cowardly Government will target the weakest

Our young people will continue to pay the price for the Coalition's weak and amateur leadership, writes Brendan O'Connor

BOTTLED IT: Brendan Howlin, pictured right with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, wasted a golden opportunity for reform, failing to achieve
even a five per cent cut in public sector allowances. Instead, new entrants will face lower rates of pay and no allowances
BOTTLED IT: Brendan Howlin, pictured right with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, wasted a golden opportunity for reform, failing to achieve even a five per cent cut in public sector allowances. Instead, new entrants will face lower rates of pay and no allowances

We cannot underestimate what a defining moment it was for this Government when Brendan Howlin stood up and formally admitted what everyone has known for weeks: that the Government was chickening out on cutting some of the crazy allowances paid to those who work for the bankrupt Government of this bankrupt country.

It wasn't as if Howlin had promised the earth. His modest goal had been to cut a mere five per cent this year from these allowances -- extra pay that various people who work for the Government get for everything from underwear to being on their feet.

But even the minister who is supposed to be responsible for cutting public expenditure -- now a matter of grave urgency in this country -- could not face down the unions in order to cut one euro in 20 from these allowances. The minister whose department apparently harasses other departments on an almost weekly basis about making cuts and efficiencies, when it came to cutting a mere five per cent from what everyone agrees are at least partially anachronistic and ridiculous allowances, couldn't do it. He bottled it.

He bottled it even though he had the kind of cover to implement cuts that no other minister in this State will ever have, hopefully. The IMF is here and can be blamed for everything.

We have lost our sovereignty, we are bankrupt and being run by foreigners, and still Howlin couldn't get even five per cent off these allowances. One suspects that even the unions didn't expect to get away with that. One suspects that the unions were poised to accept at least some trimming of these allowances. But no, virtually nothing. Because when Brendan Howlin looked into it, he discovered it was more complicated than he thought and that it would in fact contravene Croke Park.

So there it was, all laid bare. They can't do it. With every excuse and every motivation in the world, they can't do it. Rather heap taxes on the squeezed middle, rob the disabled of their independence, rather anything than risk offending public sector unions. And what did Howlin do? He did that cowardly thing that is increasingly becoming a hallmark of how we do things in this country -- he screwed the young people.

He screwed the only people in the public sector that this Government dares eyeball -- the ones that don't exist yet. New entrants to the public sector will get no allowances. Just as the new ones won't get the same pensions as the existing ones, just as the new ones, increasingly in areas like teaching and healthcare, won't get the same pay as the existing ones. Howlin is locked in a dance with public sector unions.

And the agreement is that as long as you don't touch our currently entrenched members' pay, we don't care who loses their job, we don't care if there are no new jobs for young people, we don't care what kind of conditions these young people come in under. Just keep our pay intact and make sure anyone leaving gets a fine pension, the like of which will never be seen in this country again.

And so, younger people, most of whom now accept there will be no pensions left for them, but who will probably pay even more PRSI next year to keep paying out existing pensions, younger people who either have no hope of getting a mortgage or else are drowning in negative equity, keep paying the price.

Younger people, who get no breaks on paying out childcare on top of their mortgages and all the other costs associated with trying to rear a family, are the ones who are continually the butt of everything in this country.

Because of the cosy consensus between the middle-aged or ageing Government and the middle-aged or ageing union bosses, and the middle-aged or ageing existing highly paid people in the upper echelons of Government and public service.

And why, you wonder. Why did Howlin allow himself to be so badly humiliated? Why did Howlin give up any bit of capital and moral authority he might have built up to force other departments to face cuts? Why did he back down so badly and make such a fool of himself? Who is going to listen the next time one of those memos comes from his department asking another department to take cuts?

You could develop all kinds of conspiracy theories about this, but the truth usually lies with the simplest answer. And the simplest answer is probably that those in Government are no more than enthusiastic amateurs. They just aren't very good at what they are doing.

Think of the health budget. Presumably James Reilly went into Brendan Howlin at the beginning of the year and told him how he was going to save money and stay within budget in the health service. And Howlin presumably accepted Reilly's plan, and that it would work. And then the whole thing started spiralling out of control and no one shouted stop. The budget was blown halfway through the year and no one seemed to even know it was happening. It's the kind of thing that would never happen in any half-professional organisation.

Presumably the troika was surprised too when it noticed that CEO Howlin was not demanding professionalism from his ministers and himself. But that is how it goes in Ireland.

This amateurism is also possibly married to a kind of opposition mentality. Fine Gael and Labour are used to being the virtuous ones in opposition, the ones who give out about how bad the Government is, the ones who can say populist stuff without any fear of having to do anything unpopular.

God only knows how they intend to cut €3.5bn in the forthcoming Budget. They certainly don't know themselves. They have bound themselves with the so-called triple lock, where they have committed not to cut welfare, not to raise income taxes and not to cut public sector pay, including, apparently, allowances or incremental pay rises.

Add to this the fact that they are unwilling and afraid to make themselves unpopular with any particular grouping and you get a Government for whom everything, and everyone, is out of bounds. And strangely enough, this cowardice means that they will end up cutting where it is least deserved.

These veterans of righteous opposition seem not to have realised that now they are the Government -- a government with a massive majority and the best excuse in the history of the State to reform things once and for all.

But they are too weak and too amateur to do it. So all they will do, given this golden opportunity, is target the weakest, and continue to target that lost generation, the ones with no pensions, no cast-iron guarantee of a job, no allowances, no homes, no savings or wealth accumulated, and increasingly, no hope.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss