Sunday 26 May 2019

Eoghan Harris: Critics of the Croke Park deal will not be muzzled

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

WE are not masters of our destiny in Europe. We are small cogs who must settle for our modest space in the scheme of things. What we can control is how we divide up whatever wealth we have at home.

Here the news is not good. The Budget brought home Fine Gael's fundamental mistake in going into government with the Labour Party. Because the Croke Park deal is choking social solidarity.

The CSO reports that public-sector weekly earnings averaged €903 as against private-sector earnings of €617. That's a gap of almost 50 per cent. To add injury to injury, private-sector workers are funding public-sector pensions.

The Government had three Budget choices: cut payments to the poor and weak; cut services to the poor and the weak; or cut public-sector pay or pensions and improve services to the poor and the weak. Social justice called for the third choice.

The Labour Party preferred to look after the public sector. Last Monday on Frontline, Pat Rabbitte told us that public servants must be paid €300m in increments. Why? Because the public-sector unions said so.

Clearly, Rabbitte guessed that this cowardly surrender might cause criticism. So he tried to deflect it by warning about the tendency to "drive a wedge" between the public and private sectors. As if a 50 per cent pay gap was not the hard wedge he was hoping to hide.

Later in the week, the Irish Examiner rejected Rabbitte's brazen attempt to blame the media for driving a wedge between public and private. "How has he become so deluded? The wedge exists and it was created by governments past and sustained by the incumbents," it commented.

But Labour's attempt to muzzle the media was only beginning.

The following day, Ruairi Quinn went on Newstalk to complain about the criticism of the public sector by what he called "the Sunday Independent group". In fairness, he should also have added the Star, whose superb Budget coverage was edited by Eddie Hobbs.

Hobbs pointed out that the Government could only postpone the problem of Croke Park for another 12 months at most.

"There is no way the Croke Park farce can stand against the cuts of Christmas future -- €1.7bn in 2013, €1.9bn in 2014 and €1.5bn in 2015. Yesterday is the smallest of the four at €1.45bn," he wrote.

He also set out the stark choices. "Social protection accounts for 38 per cent, pay and pensions another 36 per cent. Immunise one and you savage the other."

He did not have to add that the Labour Party had chosen to look after the public sector and savage the people who are least able to look after themselves

But whatever about the Star, Quinn can hardly quarrel with the Budget coverage of Croke Park in the Irish Independent.

Last Tuesday, the sole mention of Croke Park was buried at the bottom of a leader which tepidly concluded that it was "likely to prove an early victim of tighter European supervision of our budgets".

Last Wednesday's leader was also positive to the point of PR. "Noonan proves to be a skilled goose plucker." Fionnan Sheehan's front-page story told us that Enda Kenny would frugally be flying Ryanair, rather than taking the government jet.

The same day saw The Irish Times in more critical mode. A lethal leader let fly some sharp arrows, all of which landed on target. "The Government has nine months in power and not a lot to show for it," it said.

The edged editorial noted the "appalling economic policies of Fianna Fail". But it also pointed out that these "were not greatly opposed at the time by either Fine Gael or the Labour Party, who often complained that spending should be higher still."

After this implicit warning against going down the Fianna Fail road, the leader called on the Government to make use of its massive majority. "It needs to be radical and it needs to be courageous. It should start by revisiting the Croke Park agreement."

Then it came to the crunch. Reducing numbers, rather than revising pay and pensions, was not the right way to reform the public sector, it said.

"The State will have to do with thousands fewer nurses, teachers, gardai and whatever, so that the existing public sector salaries and pensions can remain untouched," it said.

The Sunday Independent or the Star could hardly have put it more plainly. By Wednesday, the Irish Examiner was warming up too. "It is amazing that a country that will have to borrow €13.5bn next year can allow the Croke Park deal stand."

Are Rabbitte and Quinn going to reprimand the Irish Examiner too? And what about the Mail? Surely the title of Tom McEnaney's hard-hitting analysis last Tuesday ("Vulnerable forced to suffer just to avoid upsetting the might of the public sector") was driving a wedge as well?

But as the Irish Examiner explained, it is the policy of the Labour Party which is really driving a wedge between public and private sector. "So polarised are the two groups that even mentioning this great State-sponsored inequity, now a core policy for Labour, is to be accused of being anti-public service."

As one of the chief critics of Croke Park, I want to say that Labour's bluster about demonising public sector workers is water off this duck's back. I have been down the "demonising" road before. Twice. Both times the charges of "demonising" followed me pointing out a political and an economic injustice.

All through the Northern Troubles, I was accused of demonising Northern nationalists when I called on them to stop voting for Provos who planted bombs. Likewise, in the late Sevenites, I was accused of demonising wealthy farmers when I pointed out that they were dodging taxes at the expense of PAYE workers.

For the sake of Irish democracy, it is vital not to let Labour silence the few critics of Croke Park. And I do mean few. All the parties in the Dail protect the public sector -- including "socialists" like Joe Higgins, who joined Ruairi Quinn's attack on the Sunday Independent.

RTE, which is part of the public sector, avoids even discussing it. Most political correspondents also keep a prudent silence, presumably to make sure they get a warm welcome in Montrose. This media omerta would be more suited to Putin's Russia.

But two letters in The Irish Times last week showed the value of open discussion. Professor Stephen Cusack of Cork University Hospital complained about the publication of his €200,000-plus salary scale.

"I am a public servant but a private individual. I regard your publication of my name and salary in your paper as an outrageous intrusion into my private life," he wrote.

But Conn Holohan of Galway, also a public servant, felt it was wrong that he did not have to pay a penny extra tax while the poor suffered privations.

"As someone who canvassed for the Labour Party in this election, I feel a deep sense of anger and shame."

Whatever about the anger, he has no need to feel shame. Public servants who worry about parity are a cause of hope. Let's hear from more of them.

Sunday Independent

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