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Government has to grasp the public service nettle

AS if the Government couldn't box itself in any more, both the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister have ruled out a re-opening of the Croke Park deal with the public-sector unions.

Worse still, they did so and kowtowed to the ICTU, even though they could have availed of a strong public mood to have such a deal re-opened, since the average Joe knows it was a crazy compromise which surrendered any chance of meaningful reform in the civil service, or of reducing the size of our expensive and bloated public sector. But the Government couldn't grasp the nettle. They're going down anyway, so why didn't they do what was good for the country?

Contrast this with the UK, where the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition simply cut child benefit for the well-off, regardless of the political cost among the public. And yet the public respect this. Because it's tough decision-making.

If Brian Lenihan is talking about our sovereignty being threatened by our financial position, then why didn't he seek to have this fudge reversed? The body language of the trade unionists seems to indicate that they know it will be, and that, in justice, it has to be.

Although the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) leader Blair Horan protested on RTE television's The Frontline against any further cuts, his phrasing and demeanour seemed to signal that this stonewalling game can't last.

When it came to defending the huge pension bill for retired public servants, he looked like he'd sooner be somewhere else.

How pleased he must have been then to see the Government almost immediately surrender any prospect of reconsidering the Croke Park deal. The unions were very happy to take the deal when it was offered in the first place, despite going through the motions, and making it look like acceptance was such an ordeal.

In the current circumstances, it was, and remains, a great deal for them. Not such a great deal for the rest of us, however.

Think of it. No wage cuts for public servants for two years, but absolutely no job cuts and, as a consequence of some curious procedure of self-administered 'reforms' in the public service, those pay cuts might be reversed anyway. Unbelievable. This is the great Croke Park fudge and it's going to cost us a fortune.

Meanwhile, the public purse is being bled dry, and the Government is taking in way less than it is spending. The public-sector wage bill is now a whopping one-third of the Government's spending, but nothing meaningful has been done to curb this spend.

In the UK, and in Northern Ireland, wholesale cuts are being made across the same sector to try and restore order to their public finances, and there is so far a grudging acceptance by the unions about this.

But in Ireland, there is no such political bravery -- or fairness. The Croke Park deal is ringfenced against financial realism, despite the recommendations of the McCarthy Report.

In the wider public sector with its quangos and commissions, money is still being frittered away, and the overall bill for public-sector salaries and index-linked pensions is crippling the exchequer. And incidentally, whatever happened to the recommendations of McCarthy, launched with fanfare?

Very few of them seemed to have been implemented. More fudge, more continuing waste. In fact, incredibly, the public service is continuing to recruit, with reports of up to 2,000 new jobs.

The basic facts are these: one- third of government spending goes on the public-sector wage bill and another third goes to pay for our growing social welfare costs. In reality, both will probably see cuts in December's Budget, but would Siptu's Jack O'Connor prefer that the Government cut the dole and children's allowances, instead of seeing pay cuts for his members who already have secure jobs, and secure pensions?

If so, this is just reckless and selfish. And his friends in the Labour party should say so.

For, in these times of crisis, the stance of the unions is a challenge right across the political spectrum, and not just the Government.

The resistance of Siptu and ICTU, to the modest measures already implemented, show that they refuse to countenance any real change in their way of life. They do this, even though they know that a large part of the problem with the public finances is, in effect, the huge public-sector pay bill, and the way in which it grew during the Celtic Tiger years. The Government should be looking for the job cuts in the public service, never mind entertaining ideas of giving them pay pauses.

This goes back to the mentality of benchmarking, which got us into this mess, and which the unions and reckless politicians happily went along with. Now look where it's got us. To its credit, it was a policy Fine Gael opposed.

Granted, one has sympathy for the lower-paid public sector workers, and it is wrong that those at the very top (assistant secretaries etc) should, at the last moment of the Croke Park deal's negotiation, have had themselves exempted from any sacrifice. But the fact is that pretty much everyone in the public sector has secure jobs, which are fairly well remunerated, when the rest of us are facing total uncertainty and job losses, and needless to say, little or no pensions.

Private-sector wages, and tax returns, are back to 2003 levels -- that's for those of us lucky enough to have a job and the ability to pay tax.

But the attitude of Siptu shows absolute refusal to think of the overall good of the country and community. But it also shows the cowardice of the politicians in not taking them on.

Siptu takes the irresponsible stance it does even though it is fully aware of the now huge gap between public and private-sector pay, a gap which has got worse as private-sector workers take further pay cuts.

Ibec last week suggested a further pay pause for two years for private-sector workers, and this should be applauded. It is for the good of the overall economy and to try and restore competitiveness.

By contrast, these unions take a confrontational approach even though they know that for civil servants to retain the wage security they got in the Croke Park deal, private-sector workers will have to pay even more in taxes. This is gross selfishness.

Factory workers, hairdressers and caterers will have to pay more to support civil servants who at one stage were up in arms about even making a modest contribution to their own pension levy. One would have thought that such public servants would appreciate that they had secure jobs, but they seem to take this privilege for granted.

Whoever is in the next government will have to confront this reckless mentality. Unfortunately, the Labour party seems to have gone along with it, mainly because of their own ties to the unions and because it suited them not to take a clear stand that might cost them electoral support. But bizarrely, precisely because of such ties, they may actually be in a better position now to tackle the stubbornness of the public sector against change and actually reform the service.

They could also persuade the sector of the need for long overdue cuts. They are going to have to if they get into power, because the state of the public finances will simply demand it.

At the start of the recession, ICTU's David Begg conceded that we would all have to make sacrifices, including public-sector workers, but he then appeared to explain away the hardline stance of Siptu and instead distracted us with new philosophical models for economy and society, just at the time when we needed focus on the immediate question of the public finances.

At least Fr Sean Healy accepts the need for public-sector reform and has argued for the sacrifices to be made, starting at the top.

It is time for all of us, and the political culture, to face down this selfishness or the country will drift further into debt, with a recalcitrant public sector and the depressing resort to an aggressive strike culture (or sorry 'work-to-rule' culture), which will drive away future investors, and any chance of a meaningful recovery.

We should start by reopening the Croke Park Agreement, which a besieged Government, on the ropes, conceded to in order to buy industrial peace and stop the spiralling cost of the public sector.

The deal was predicated on what lay ahead over the next two years. But now that estimation, and the situation, is much worse than we thought, and the Government is more broke and the public sector remains untouched at its Celtic Tiger size, just like one those vast ghost hotels, except this one has to be paid for, every hour, by the taxpayers.

The spirit of the Croke Park deal was that it could be reassessed if things got much worse. They have, and it should be -- immediately.

Sunday Independent