| 17.6°C Dublin

Jody Corcoran: Moment that illumined the state of Irish politics

The Government's capitulation last week, in the face of what was an unuttered public sector 'fat cat' threat to strike, is nothing short of a seismic moment -- one which has wonderfully illuminated the state of politics.



What happens next will define for a generation the course of events, although they haven't seen it yet. They have all missed the moment -- which was last Tuesday -- when the Coalition formally caved in on premium pay and allowances.

Game, set and almost match to the unions, then, the public sector oligarchs, the insiders who have lived high on the fat of the land while the country was brought to its knees and are gorging still.

Right now Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail are at least five, probably 10 years out of mode, and, unbelievably, they each look set to press the self-destruct button, haughtily, but mistakenly, of the view that this latest outcry will also pass.

The younger wing of Fine Gael may yet save the day. Here's hoping.

But in Labour, where the hierarchy know they have done wrong, the battle is afoot, and the forces of retrenchment, as led by firebrand chairman Colm Keaveney, a former Siptu official, are in the ascendancy.

In Fianna Fail, meanwhile, they may as well curl up and die if the views as expressed by Billy Kelleher are those of the leadership, which they are, that is, of Micheal Martin, still expedient, now that he feels the time is right to come out of purgatory.

Martin may have exposed the limitations of Gerry Adams again last week, but it is Sinn Fein, if they can rid themselves of the old guard, who will achieve their ambition, under the leadership of Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald, as the last party standing in a house of cards.

The expectation, or hope, is that a new political movement will emerge, somehow, from somewhere, to represent the vast majority who are sick, sore and tired of the insiders who have sliced, diced and served up this country.

They are still at it.

Not only are the two sections of the same workforce at each other's throats, divided as never before by the unfairness laid bare in the insiders' prescription to protect the public sector, but bitter resentments have also been stored up within the public sector itself.

The vast majority, by the way, are the 1.7 million in the private sector, diminished but hanging on, unseen; those on the dole queue, 60pc languishing for a year or more and most of the rest on a slow boat to Australia, while the Government bangs on about "jobs, jobs, jobs".

And unheard from too, that is, until the wheel comes around, which it always does.

In the public sector, they do not care, they're all right Jack, and anyway, it's not their fault, the argument goes, because they were not the culprits, they're smarter than everybody else, and they are more organised too, of course.

The culprits have become the scapegoats: bankers, developers, regulators and all of the rest of them, the bit players, what are called the professional classes -- lawyers, auditors and accountants -- more crass than class, have been identified, but not yet punished.

It would be a release to the psyche of us all if there was a perp walk or two on the wild side, for charges to be brought and prosecuted in a court of law where due process and fair procedure will tell us more.

But if the bondholders never existed, if the faceless, nameless Shylocks of Europe and elsewhere did not demand their pound of flesh, and if our insider elite did not insist upon slicing it from nearest the heart, this crisis would still exist.

The consequences of the boom have yet to be unravelled.

Follow the trajectory: social partnership, benchmarking, Croke Park. That is where it is also at.

We are spending more than we earn, to be flippant -- but to make a point -- on underwear for public servants.

It is beyond ridiculous; it is madness on a loop that a moral man such as Brendan Howlin, whose job it is to control public expenditure, and reform the mess, should now be obliged to thwart Ruairi Quinn's good intentions and force James Reilly to slash home help.

Reilly may be the latest pantomime figure to kick around, a clown with two heads, but he is no worse than what went before and at least he has this to his merit: he is trying to do something.

So they all set off in chase, not least Billy Kelleher, who on Prime Time the other night, dismissed what even RTE can now see is the elephant in the room, reduced to this: allowances so outdated, so historic as to have their roots in the time of Lemass and before.

Howlin wanted to shave by €75m, that is, by just 5 per cent, the €1.5bn bill these allowances are costing every year.

Let us put that another way: to avoid bed closures, to safeguard home help, to assist Ruairi Quinn's drive to develop what is best in our children, Howlin wanted to cut the €27 annual underwear allowance by just €1.35 a year -- less than the cost of a loaf of bread.

But the 'fat cat' public sector unions still said no.

And Kelleher said the problem was not Croke Park, the sham agreement which Fianna Fail had set up; no, the problem was the interpersonal relationship between Dr Reilly and Roisin Shortall, he said, she of the mighty sulk, and the media set off in chase, hares after the hound.

For Fianna Fail, it is all about an expedient head, preferably James Reilly's head, but any head will do so that they might look good by comparison -- and then what?

Here's what: Fianna Fail's Public Expenditure and Reform spokesman, Sean Fleming, is from Laois, where if you threw a stone you would hit a public sector worker from the prison, the regional hospital or the psychiatric hospital. He wants their votes.

If Fianna Fail thinks 300,000 public sector votes are going to save their ass, as it secured for Bertie Ahern the easily bought transfers of now indignant Labour voters, bought by benchmarking, then they are deluded and should be returned to the gates of hell.

If Labour thinks the same 300,000 will stave off the worst of Sinn Fein's vituperative attacks, then they will do well to return as the half-party their detractors have always said they were.

If Fine Gael thinks they can be all things to everybody, while ignoring silent screams of the 1.7 million, the vast proportion of which gave them a chance, then they are in for a day of reckoning too.

Step forth, then, Eoghan Murphy, the young Fine Gael TD, and his mates, who have referred this allowance farce to the Public Accounts Committee, where it was seized upon by John McGuinness, the only man who might save Fianna Fail; the only one to have spoken out, at least.

Although there was a dissenting voice or two at the party's think-in last week, wiser heads have come to realise that Croke Park is a bad deal, before they were shouted down.

Enda Kenny, meanwhile, has placed all of what remains of credibility in a root-and-branch reinvigoration of the agreement, the objective, I am told, to squeeze greater savings from Croke Park through increased productivity, among other means.

After the allowances debacle, few are holding their breath, however; not when there is the likes of Colm Keaveney around, jumping up and down at the behest of his trade union comrades, to shout "election! election!" when the heat is on, whereupon everybody will scurry back down the rabbit hole to Wonderland again.

Sunday Independent