JACK O'Connor, the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, could not have been clearer: he and his fellow trade union leaders are preparing for a lengthy and damaging war against the Government and the chances of economic recovery. O'Connor believes that he can force Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Finance, to abandon last December's Budget if the unions can convince Government that they "have the resolve and determination to conduct a campaign of industrial action and strikes on a sustained basis".
So prepare for a game of bluff in which there can be no winners. On one side, O'Connor will lead his unions into a battle that they cannot be allowed to win; on the other is a government that cannot afford to lose -- with everyone else caught in the middle.
Last week gave us a brief taste of what is to come, when the air traffic controllers shut the airports because they wanted some attention. The national interest, or even the individual interests of 20,000 passengers, counted for nothing. The controllers, and the semi-State managers who employ them, had no hesitation in allowing an internal dispute spill over into a national disgrace.
The dispute had nothing to do with December's Budget, and nothing to do with the pay cuts that the rest of the country has suffered or will suffer this year. It was instead a classic example of the sheltered economy showing how disconnected it has become from the real economy: more pay for less work; a Pavlovian rejection of new technology and new work practices; and a management response that showed all the finesse of a sledgehammer cracking a nut.
The dispute will have served some good if it forces the Government to introduce legislation that outlaws strike action in essential public services. There can be no excuse for what happened: no disagreement between air traffic controllers and their managers can ever justify a decision to shut down the country's most vital transport link, and it cannot be allowed to happen again.
Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Transport, has said the Government will consider legislation, and it cannot come too soon. Those who work in essential public services cannot be allowed to use the disproportionate power that they possess to blackmail their employers, and by extension the entire country. Gardai are not allowed to strike, which is as it should be, even if some members of the force seem to think otherwise. The same restrictions should apply to all those who work in areas that are essential to a functioning society.
The public sector trade unions, however, take a different view. They believe that the power they possess by working in an essential area should be used as a political tool to beat the Government of the day. David Begg, the general secretary of Ictu, says that the trade union movement is the only "actor in the market either interested in or capable of achieving social justice". He may see that as a legitimate aspiration for a trade union, and he may believe that a strike by nurses, teachers or air traffic controllers offers a route to "social justice", but he should be disabused of those notions by Government. If Begg and O'Connor want to pursue political objectives, they should abandon their unions and stand for election to the Dail. Stripped of the power to disrupt the country, they and their arguments could be judged simply on their merits, rather than on the strength of their threats.
Social partnership, which dominated the political agenda in this country for more than 20 years, gave the union leaders unprecedented access to, and influence over, policy-making without the inconvenience of ever being subjected to public scrutiny.
That lack of scrutiny meant that the unelected social partners could impose their narrow, self-interested agendas on the rest of the country. It is hardly surprising that those agendas contributed so much to the malaise that has afflicted Ireland for more than a decade. The competitiveness that drove the early years of the economic boom was frittered away by social partnership, as a succession of national wage agreements fuelled Irish inflation. The cosy complacency of partnership saw public sector boards used as baubles for union and business leaders and robbed public sector bodies of innovative and brave leadership.
The union obsession with political power also worked against the interests of their own union members. They were just pawns in the game of power chess between their leaders and the Government, and the legacy of those years is a public sector that is as demoralised as it is unreformed. By resisting reform, the unions embraced sclerosis and decline: protecting the status quo and refusing to create a modern, vigorous, motivated public service.
Almost three years ago, the OECD produced a report on the Irish public service that should have served as the basis for deep and significant reform. It highlighted the lack of leadership, the poor human resource management, the need for a senior civil service, yet its recommendations were pushed into the stultifying morass of yet more committees and yet more reviews.
Now we are told by O'Connor and Begg that reform will not happen. They have no interest in a better public service -- better for the public and better for the people who work in it -- because their only concern is the power they exert to influence Government. So for the next few months, the battle lines are drawn: across the public sector there will be strikes and disruptions as the unions try to recover the position they lost last year.
It is a pointless, self-flagellating campaign of national destruction that will isolate public sector workers from the rest of society and deepen the divide that the unions have fostered since the start of the recession. What possible benefits flow from teachers refusing to hold parent-teacher meetings outside school hours? Or civil servants shutting their offices at lunchtime? Or bans on overtime? And when those actions fail to turn a Government that cannot be turned, what good will come from the strikes that follow? The answer is simple: none at all.
If O'Connor believes that he can blackmail this Government into capitulation, we have to hope that he is wrong. In yesterday's opinion poll in the Irish Times it was clear that a substantial majority of people from all political persuasions (except Sinn Fein) understand that the Government must cut its own spending. By a majority of two to one, the people favour expenditure cuts over tax increases, even though they believe that December's Budget was unfair.
This Government -- any government -- has no room for manoeuvre. Its spending exceeds its income by so much that it cannot close the gap by raising taxes through a recession. Spending must fall, and since so much of that spending is soaked up by public sector wages and social welfare payments, that is where the axe must fall. The people may think it unfair, but they know it to be unavoidable.
The cuts are just part of the Government's challenge. It has an absolute responsibility to reform the public sector so that it is as efficient and effective as is humanly possible. That requires leadership and direction within the public sector, and it requires basic management of the public sector. For far too long government has ducked that responsibility, allowing the public sector to stagnate under trade union control.
The result is a demotivated workforce that has been fed a steady diet of disinformation by its trade union leaders.
Change is unavoidable and so confrontation seems inevitable: O'Connor and Begg seem not to care that they are set on a course that threatens economic recovery and their own members.
A decision to outlaw strikes in essential services would be a welcome signal that Brian Cowen's Government will not buckle -- and far more significant than the guerrilla warfare tactics of threatening to disrupt the way that the unions collect their dues from members' pay.
There can be no repeat of last week's self-indulgent nonsense from the Impact trade union and its air-traffic controllers, and no tolerance for any future sabre-rattling. The national interest demands that all efforts are focused on delivering as swift an economic recovery as is possible.
That requires Government to strip inefficiencies and costs from those sheltered sectors of the economy that it controls, and it requires public sector workers to recognise that reform and transformation are essential for themselves and for the country.
We cannot afford a war of attrition in the middle of a recession, and we cannot indulge an extended game of bluff between unions and Government.