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John Downing: Is SIPTU's rejection of the Croke Park deal Taoiseach's Lisbon I?

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The SIPTU ‘No’ creates huge difficulties for Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

The SIPTU ‘No’ creates huge difficulties for Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

The SIPTU ‘No’ creates huge difficulties for Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

WILL the unions' rejection of Croke Park II become Enda Kenny's Lisbon Treaty I? The question is not as cryptic as it first sounds.

Just after 10 am on Friday June 13, 2008, a mere six weeks after he was acclaimed as popular new Taoiseach with stellar opinion poll ratings, Brian Cowen received the news that the voters had rejected the EU Treaty of Lisbon. This presented him with a political and economic nightmare both at home and abroad.

From that date onwards, a steady trickle of bad news about the real state of the Irish banks and the national finances built up to a torrent. Brian Cowen, perhaps the unluckiest of all Ireland's Taoisigh, fought without success to stop things spinning totally out of control.

Mr Kenny's supporters will instantly dismiss the Brian Cowen comparison as unduly forced. But they will not find it so easy to dismiss a far simpler statement: From today, Enda Kenny faces the biggest challenge of his term in office. And how he handles things in the coming weeks and months will affect all our lives and impact on our EU and Eurozone partners.

Like Brian Cowen before him, the Taoiseach will not lack expert advice. But it is still up to Mr Kenny to choose the right advice.

The public service unions' vote yesterday heralds the end of an era that dates back over 25 years. On Friday, October 9, 1987, union leaders like John Carroll of SIPTU signed up for Charlie Haughey's 'Programme for National Recovery'.

The government side had conceded minuscule pay rises and lived off a raft of future promises on tax reform and job creation. News reports from that time are replete with doubt, based on Ireland's previous industrial relations chaos, about how long that deal could stand. But it not only ran its full three-year stint – it was followed by six other similar programmes with a host of inventive names worthy of a study in themselves.

The process has often been criticised for being undemocratic because it bypassed our elected representatives. It was attacked as cultivating an unhealthy relationship between government and union leaders that did not look great at times. It was frequently castigated as being far too dear.

These criticisms had some justification. But they were outweighed by the simple fact that these national agreements delivered industrial peace and a certain predictability in the cost of labour. These were not just socially and politically desirable – in the hunt for international investment and job creation, they were invaluable.

So, the full extent of this reversal for Mr Kenny and his finance ministerial duo of Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin cannot be overstated. Labour, as the half-brother of the trade union movement, is also left in a very exposed and tricky position.

Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and others on the opposition benches are right not to miss this chance to criticise. Self-evidently, the sales job on this deal was a botch.

But the issues here are much more fundamental, and the party political point-scoring is rather tedious. It was always a long-shot that a 'Yes' could be secured with the promise of lighter pay cuts. Any way you look at it, what was sought was a vote for pay cuts – on top of previous pay cuts.

It is a fact that the vast bulk of public service workers are on modest pay. It is equally true that they feel they have given enough and are at the limit of their tether. These views are sharpened by the conviction that the economic crisis was not primarily of their making.

The only question now is what happens next. It is encouraging that the signals from both government and unions are all about renewing some form of dialogue.

The Taoiseach is right to say that the national debt figures have not been changed by this vote. But it is up to him to find a workable and imaginative fix for a very intractable problem that will define his term in office for better or worse.

Irish Independent