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James Downey: Feeble attempts at reform will not help us win battle


DAVID Cameron won his battle with the British public sector unions on Wednesday with much greater ease than Margaret Thatcher enjoyed when she smashed the miners in the 1980s. There are enormous differences between the two events, but also one important similarity.

First, Wednesday was a one-day protest, not a long, drawn-out war. Secondly, the violent confrontations that marked the miners' strike were absent.

Thirdly, Mr Cameron and his ministers, for the most part, put on a credible show of reason and moderation, whereas Ms Thatcher had a habit of viewing any challenge to herself as a threat to destroy society.

Mind you, she did have a point. Any government faced with a direct confrontation has to fight and win. Otherwise, it must surrender office. British trade union leaders, apart from Arthur Scargill, never wanted such an outcome, in the miners' strike, in the general strike of 1926, or this week.

The British public (and the public in Ireland or any other stable country) know all this, and will support even a very divisive regime like the Thatcher government when push comes to shove.

This week, they had a special reason for taking Mr Cameron's side. The pension reforms planned by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will be very painful, but they are absolutely unavoidable.

Hardly any country in the world, and certainly no country in Europe, can continue to set the present low retirement ages and the present high level of pensions, either as part of the social welfare system or as a reward for public service.

We are living too long. There are already too few workers and too many dependents. Mr Cameron doesn't want to work people to death.

He simply won't pay because he can't pay.

Can Enda Kenny, or his successors in the coming decades, pay? Of course they can't.

Never mind all the baloney that Bertie Ahern used to talk in the days of the Tiger. Ireland is a much poorer country than Britain, and growing poorer by the day. Even if we make a miraculous recovery and return to double-digit growth, we can never afford the pension rates we are paying right now.

This applies with special force at and near the top of the tree, and I remain baffled by the timidity, lack of imagination and inability to connect with the populace that characterise the behaviour of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

Mr Ahern and Brian Cowen are to have their pensions reduced to something like €147,000 a year. This is €27,000 a year more than what I consider appropriate for the Taoiseach's salary, not his pension.

I want public service pay capped at €125,000, the president's salary. A Taoiseach would have to scrape by on €120,000. Other remuneration would be reduced pro rata.

Among the biggest sufferers would be top civil servants, precisely because they benefited so handsomely from the pay awards of the past.

Some of these awards predated Mr Ahern; they even predated the Tiger. In the distant past, senior civil servants said privately that they were unfair because they were based on percentages, not cash amounts. The result: far better pay for top Irish officials than for their counterparts in Germany.

Worse still is the failure of all the feeble efforts at public service reform. The consequences of this failure are everywhere, in the incompatible computers, the empty buildings or sections of buildings, the officials whose jobs have become redundant or have never really existed.

Thus far, we have had no sign that Brendan Howlin can devise and push through the sweeping reform that has eluded his predecessors. He will have his chance on Monday. I wish him luck.

He will need more than luck. He will need real determination. And he will need to act quickly. Delay and uncertainty are two sure ways of making a bad situation worse.

Mr Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have not come to grips with the difficulties of the British economy. They seem to find it hard to grasp economic complexities, and harder to understand how much the difficulties and complexities have grown in the last few months.

But they have got a few crucial things right. Right about the pensions crisis. Right about the strike and how to handle it with the maximum success and the minimum trouble.

The Bank of England, meanwhile, was right when it joined with other giants to give the world's financial system a much-needed blood transfusion.

The ECB came on board: belatedly, but never mind. It got the message. Let us hope Angela Merkel got the message. For Mr Cameron, Mr Howlin, the political leaders everywhere and the backroom boys and girls of the Frankfurt Group are all parts of the jigsaw that has her picture at its centre.

Six days to the EU summit meeting. Six days to save the euro? "That's drama rather than reality," sniffs Michael Noonan.

No, minister. It's drama, but it's reality too. The play has gone on long enough. Time for the curtain. And if that means a spectacular final entrance by Superwoman, fair enough. But the real stars are the people who kept their heads.

Irish Independent