| 2.9°C Dublin

What a mess -- it's no wonder Barroso lost it

In April 2002 the secondary teachers, through their union representatives, were threatening to stop the education system in its tracks if the benchmarking process -- then in progress -- did not deliver them a pay increase of 30 per cent.

I wrote about it, calling them avaricious, incompetent, lazy money-grubbers, given their then working week of 22 hours, and the fact that they were throwing one-in-five citizens of this country on to the scrap heap as they left school unable to read and write.

Later that year, after the benchmarking process had been completed, a pay increase of 21 per cent was delivered, on top of the normal national pay rises which ran at an average 10 per cent annually through the boom years.

There were, of course, supposed to be productivity concessions, from all public service workers. None was delivered.

Then came the crash, with the Teachers' Union of Ireland and the Irish Federation of University Teachers declaring the Croke Park deal anti-democratic because its terms proposed that there should be no further pay cuts until 2014 if the public servants of the country, including teachers, agreed to a reduction of numbers (voluntarily!) in the wider public service. They also had to agree to productivity (much of which had already been promised and reneged on in benchmarking) in return for having their pay cuts reversed . . . a reversal of €2bn.

The pay cuts were far lower than the increases that had been delivered under benchmarking. In addition the public service workers, including the teachers, were being required to pay a small levy above the 10 per cent of salary that had -- until then -- been their contribution to their guaranteed pensions, although private sector workers had seen their pensions wiped out.

Despite the TUI and IFUT, Congress finally ratified the Croke Park agreement last June.

Productivity from the teachers is still notable by its absence, but the members of the TUI are currently balloting on working an extra hour per week, more than a year after the agreement was hammered out.

Is there a connection between this belligerently defiant (one might even call it anarchical) approach to national affairs and what happened in the Dail during the week? You bet there is.

We had to watch in disbelief as the two parties that are supposed to make up our government disintegrated into atoms of toxic dust as they imploded, their backs resolutely turned on the citizenry they were supposed to lead. And the three parties who claimed to represent principled opposition and purposeful intent for the future laid out stalls that are so obviously incompatible as to ensure any half-intelligent observer that they too will either implode almost as soon as they enter government or be paralysed by their own compromises in greed for office.

Nobody is in charge because our only ideology is power and selfishness, the two ignoble driving forces of Irish public life. And what styles itself as the "left" in Irish society is part of it. It has already been noticed that senior trade unionists have generous salaries and benefits.

This week, as the members of the TUI prepared to ballot on an agreement that national emergency and patriotism required they should have accepted more than a year ago, they were expressing outrage at lack of leadership from their union as to how they should vote. (These are the people, mind you, who have charge of the intellectual development of our children.)

Their general secretary Peter McMenamin and the union president Bernie Ruane are in Bangkok in Thailand (the temperature in Thailand at this time of year is in the upper 30s). They are attending a conference on 'Equality in Education'. Ruane, when required to attend an emergency executive meeting of the union on Friday concerning the ballot, said she had to attend to "other union work" with the general secretary.

The ballot proposal came from the Labour Relations Commission . . . very recently. The LRC was needed because virtually nothing has been delivered of the Croke Park deal to date, just as nothing was delivered after the benchmarking process.

It's as much a marker and a microcosm of Ireland as what we saw on the floor of Leinster House, part of our ideology of power and privilege.

When the president of the EU Commission, Jose Emanuel Barroso, shouted Socialist MEP Joe Higgins off the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the week, telling him that it was irresponsible financial behaviour of some Irish institutions and the lack of supervision in the Irish market that was at the root of Ireland's troubles (and by implication, those of the euro and the whole of the European Union) I think many of us cringed.

We cringed because it was manifestly the truth.

There is a civilised pretence in Europe of solidarity with the Irish. The undercurrent is a livid rage that such an insignificant little state with no indigenous wealth can have brought the euro and the entire European project close to collapse. Those at senior level in Europe are also well aware that the Irish show no signs of learning any lessons.

We have no "firm purpose of amendment" as the Catechism says. We're still trying to blame someone else for our mess.

Joe Higgins, as a good hardline socialist, wants to exculpate the "working class people" of Ireland and pin all the blame on the bankers and developers.

The government wants to blame the international market collapse, ignoring like petulant children the fact that all other countries are recovering in jig time from that event, while we slide further into the mire because we ourselves created a situation immeasurably worse than that in any other developed country.

The opposition want to blame the government, which, it has to be said, does have to bear a lot of the blame.

Within the government, the Green Party has the impertinence to blame Fianna Fail, constantly claiming a moral high ground as they themselves slip incompetently and ungratifyingly through the very thin ice covering the lake of empty bravado that has engulfed their smugness and arrogance.

What passes for our "left" has been as much part of the sleazy mess that is 21st century Ireland as any ranch-farmer, dishonest industrialist, or property developer moving billions around a chess board of non-existent capital.

The teachers, who presumably count as "working people" in Joe Higgins' ideology, the men and women who have charge of the intellectual future of the country, are balloting on ways of avoiding making a contribution to recovery.

No wonder Barroso lost his rag.

Sunday Independent