David Quinn: Health service workers enjoy the life of Reilly
Defending Health Minister James Reilly is about as fashionable as platform shoes, but when he said last week that it would be impossible to cut another €700m from his budget next year without a renegotiation of the Croke Park Agreement, he was absolutely correct.
In fact, contrary to his image as blunderer, I believe he has actually played his hand quite deftly this time around.
Reilly will have anticipated the protests against the latest €130m round of spending cuts he announced most recently.
Now he can turn to his cabinet colleagues, especially in the Labour party, and ask them how they expect him to find another €700m in savings next year (more if you add in the cuts not achieved this year) when they can't cope with any additional cuts this year?
How are they going to respond? Is the shortfall to be made up exclusively from tax increases? How realistic is that?
Speaking to RTE last Friday, Reilly did hint at one way in which some of the shortfall might be made up when he pointed out that at times up to 10pc of workers in the HSE are out sick. That is a huge rate of absenteeism which must be equivalent to tens of millions of euro annually. Can anything be done about that, or is it unrealistic as well?
In the week since he made those remarks the unions representing the public sector should, by rights, have been in the firing line. They should have been hauled on to one RTE programme after another and asked to justify the Croke Park Agreement in the light of cuts to essential services.
Reilly stated that 70pc of his health budget goes on pay and therefore all of the savings he has to make from here on in must come from front-line services.
The annual health budget is around €13bn. Seventy per cent of that is €9.1bn. Therefore, Reilly is expected to cut over €700m from the remaining €4bn of his budget next year.
The protests of the last few days, not least from the Labour Party, showed how politically difficult it will be to find those savings.
The trade union chiefs should have been asked to respond directly to Reilly. They should have been asked to explain how he is expected to cut another €700m from his budget next year when public sector pay is ring-fenced until 2014.
How many hospital wards will have to be closed? How many sick people will have to be refused treatment?
But the trade union chiefs were put under almost no pressure this week. Instead all of the pressure was on the Health Minister.
Nor was there much pressure on the Labour party. Labour Ministers and TDs were not asked the really hard questions about Croke Park.
They weren't ask to choose between public sector pay cuts and cuts to front-line health services.
If they were asked, what would they say? When Brendan Howlin was asked earlier in the week about Croke Park he continued to defend it. But by no stretch of the imagination will the Croke Park Agreement generate from productivity increases and such like the savings needed to make up the €700m spending shortfall.
Nor, as mentioned, will the €700m be found from further tax increases and we won't be able to borrow it either.
So something has to give and it's going to be front-line services, the Croke Park Agreement, or perhaps even the Government itself.
And since Labour is so obviously beholden to the unions the price will be paid either by those in need of front-line services or by the collapse of the Coalition.
A fortnight ago, Pat Rabbitte complained that we must not return to the days of the bishops 'dictating' to politicians. But the reason Labour can't have the bishops dictating to it is because that job is already taken by the unions.
Politicians once feared a 'belt of the crozier'. Now they laugh at the bishops.
Today they are absolutely terrified of the public sector unions. The fact is that politicians are always terrified of whatever is the power in the land at any given moment. It used to be the Church. Now it's the unions.
The 'belt of the crozier' the 'bishops' of the public sector unions can employ is strike action. In addition, the Government fears the prospect of losing the votes of public sector workers if it goes after Croke Park.
There used to be, and sometimes still are, calls for the separation of Church and State. An updated version of that would be a Campaign for the Separation of the State and the Unions.
Such a thing is needed because the power of the public sector unions is so great that the Government, and Labour in particular, would rather cut front line health services than demand the renegotiation of Croke Park. That is manifestly wrong and unjust.