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Government fails to get basics right

Is this government for real? Honestly. Despite the crisis in the public finances, despite all the promises made under the Croke Park Agreement, which was itself already a fudge, we now hear that thousands of workers at seven commercial semi-state companies are to get pay rises of up to 6 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Government meanly cuts the pay of some of the lowest-paid workers in the private sector, the people in restaurants and shops, the people who are just about keeping our high street economy going, the people who are just about keeping the roof over their heads and holding themselves in a job. This is grossly unfair, and it just gets worse.

While civil servants talk about 'days of privilege' and 'cheque cashing half days', and threaten industrial action, those in the actual economy do not have the right to be paid more for working on a Sunday.

No public servant has directly lost their job because of this recession, and they are guaranteed no pay cuts for two years. So this is the Croke Park deal in action. Yes, there will be no pay cuts. Instead, there will be pay rises! We now hear that a fifth of the state-owned bodies have paid one or both instalments of the last national pay deal, worth about 3.5 per cent, even though the last government walked away from the agreement. More than 600 staff at the Irish Aviation Authority who earn an average of €95,600 a year -- an amazing sum -- and who have already got the first 3.5 per cent increase, will get the second instalment of 2.5 per cent next month. When the rest of us are forced to pay more taxes to support the bulging public pay purse, how can that be fair?

Another 144 staff at Dublin Port Company have already got both pay rises, while staff at the ESB, Bord Gais, the Irish Greyhound Board, and Horse Racing Ireland have all received the first instalment. Meanwhile, the Government is mulling over whether to sanction a €5m pay rise due to over 1,000 staff at Bord na Mona. And what robust stand has Pat Rabbitte, the Minister for Energy, taken on this? Did he talk tough? Did he lay down the law? Well, he said -- deep breath -- that he believed that the board of Bord na Mona should 'have regard to the current economic situation' when considering the 3.5 per cent pay rise. Well, that's telling them: 'have regard to the current economic situation'. No wonder the public sector unions have run amok.

So this is just another spineless Irish government in the face of our insatiable public sector and its colossal wage bill. Meanwhile, the private sector has to fend for itself, the restaurant workers, the cafe owners, the small businesses -- all of these have to fend for themselves, and are now further penalised for trying to keep people in meaningful employment. Why, we may as well bring in the IMF now. At least, they'd know how to deal with our overspending.

At least the last government, discredited as they are, got the message towards the end.

Although workers at some of the 32 commercial semi-states had received the social partnership pay rises, over 300,000 public servants did not. This is because the last government walked away from the pay deal in February 2009 and brought in a pay freeze as the country plunged into recession. But with the unions lodging pay claims at the Labour Court, this weak Government has caved in, even though the semi-state companies are not bound to honour the court's recommendations.

How can we expect a sympathetic hearing in Europe when we sanction these unsustainable pay rises? As Mark Fielding, of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, put it: "There is €50bn going out and €32bn coming in in tax. We're dependent on money we got around a week ago from the IMF to pay directly-employed public servants. Reality hasn't hit these people. The fact is that the Government owns them and it doesn't have two brass farthings to rub together."

Oh, but it's worse that that. Because of the pay rises, electricity costs will be higher, and businesses will have to charge more to cover costs. Think of restaurants, for example, who are constantly facing high utility costs. They charge more for their services and so tourists complain and don't use them, and so this damages our tourist industry. The tourist industry that we are basing so much of our hopes for recovery on. There's no point talking about getting our confidence back, and bringing in visitors, if we can't get the basics right.

But anyone who thought this Government would tackle the issue of public sector spending was a fool. It is the same old story. The unions are too powerful and there are no visionaries here: no David Cameron, no Ray MacSharry, no Des O'Malley. The consensus-driven government is weak and moving at a snail's pace. The quangos remain, the top-level public servants get their rises and the lowest paid private sector workers get hammered.

Meanwhile, down in the Senate they were supposed to be abolishing, FG hands out juicy new posts

to its friends, including Fiach Mac Conghail, of We the Citizens, the 'new political movement' which was supposed to be all about change. But this is a charade of so-called 'change'. The situation is far more serious, and unjust and depressing. And we, the citizens, can only marvel as the Government grinds on, powerless in the face of a slow motion car crash.

Sunday Independent