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Eoghan Harris: Croke Park showdown coming soon for Coalition

Conor Brady, in last Thursday's Irish Times, made a convincing plea for the Seanad. Free of highfalutin nonsense, he based his belief on his days as a Dail reporter. Summoning the ghosts of great senators, Brady showed how from Owen Sheehy Skeffington to David Norris, the Upper House stood against the "herd mentality".

Brady also asked a basic question: "Is this worth €25m a year?" And answered: "It is certainly better value than the bloated, top-heavy HSE." That's how to make a case.

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As I am not running for the Seanad -- and so still fairly sane -- I have no axe to grind in saying the Seanad should stay. I believe I earned my keep there over the past three years. In particular I am proud of my contributions in three areas.

First, I took some trouble over the Civil Partnership Bill. And was delighted to see that Barry Dignam, one of my colleagues at the National Film School, and his long-term partner Hugh Walsh, were the first couple to avail of the new arrangement without exemption.

Second, I secured cross-party support for a review of the complex case of Second Lieutenant Donal De Roiste, who was "resigned" from the Irish Army 40 years ago. Down the years, sundry Dail deputies had tried and failed to do the same. But led by Senators Joe O'Toole, Diarmaid Wilson and the late Senator Kieran Phelan, the Seanad did what the Dail did not do.

Last, but not least, I put public sector reform on the political agenda -- and kept it there. And here's something for those who complain about the Taoiseach's appointees to chew on. Only an Independent senator, appointed by the Taoiseach, and not seeking a second term, could have spoken frankly as I did about fat cattery in the public sector.

Given the power of the public sector unions, most politicians are too scared to say what they think.

So let me salute the handful of courageous senators who supported my constant calls for serious public sector reform: Paul Bradford of Fine Gael and Marc MacSharry, Jim Walsh and Paschal Mooney of Fianna Fail. Note there is no Labour senator on the list.

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My last speech to the Seanad, on March 23, on the Programme for Government (which I mentally titled "A Sense of Entitlement") was well received on all sides of the house, but not by Alan Shatter, the minister present. I blamed the Catholic national bourgeoisie, whether bankers or benchmarkers, for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, called for more Northern Protestants in the Seanad, and had this to say about Minister Shatter's claim for the merits of "strong and stable" government:

The only value in having a "strong and stable" government is that it would be able to tackle the real Becher's Brook which is avoided by every government in this country, namely, reform of the public sector, particularly the most difficult part of that reform, which is freezing wages and pensions in the public sector until the private sector catches up with it and passes it out.

Like many lawyers, Alan Shatter is a literalist when it comes to politics. Apart from making a singularly ungracious reply to what he knew was my last speech, he totally missed my political point in berating me for saying the public sector and not the banks were the Becher's Brook facing the Government.

Unlike the Fine Gael senators present, Shatter could not seem to see I was playing down the political problem of the bank debt because I could see the Government would not get any golden eggs from the EU. Three weeks on, let

Shatter still insist that the bank debt is the biggest political problem facing the Government and see what thanks he gets from his colleagues who are busily trying to bury it.

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Meantime my prediction that public sector pay will prove a bigger political problem than the bank debt has been totally borne out. While the Government has so far escaped major political damage from the bank burden, it will not escape should Croke Park fail to deliver. Let me explain why.

The public sector is now stealing its increments from the frayed purse of the private sector. We are being taxed to bits to pay an elite more than their counterparts in Europe. This daylight robbery is disguised by the fixation of economists with GDP as a measure against which to judge the tax take or public sector pay.

A far better measure is to look at earned and unearned income of the Irish people.

A reasonable extrapolation from the 2006 numbers suggests that the 15 per cent who work in the public sector now command 30 per cent of national personal incomes. If these figures are even roughly accurate, the Government is going to have to cut public sector pay before the next general election -- or suffer serious setbacks at the polls.

That is why the realists in Fine Gael and Labour -- Brian Hayes, Pat Rabbitte, Ruairi Quinn and Brendan Howlin -- have been talking tough about Croke Park. But will the Labour Party let them back words with deeds? The country is broke. Time that Shatter's "strong and stable government" showed some guts.

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One thing I won't miss about the Seanad, however, are the anti-Israeli obsessives who sometimes make me wonder whether -- well you know what I wonder. The line between lashing Israelis and lashing Jews is a thin one and must be trodden carefully.

Colin Murphy, the theatre critic and political commentator, carefully walks that line. Although a cogent critic of Israeli policy, he is intensely aware of the seductions of anti-Semitism, and not afraid to ask awkward questions. Consider the uncompromising opening and closing sentences of his recent review in the Irish Independent of a new production of The Merchant of Venice.

"The hero is a man who spits on Jews in the street. One of the romantic leads wins praise for winning, and converting, a young Jewish woman. The rousing climax involves the entire cast exulting in the humiliation of a Jew being forced to convert to Christianity. The mark of the success of this new production, by young company devise+conquer, will be how they handle the overriding issue of the play: its hatred."

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Finally, let me say goodbye to the great Jewish film-maker Sidney Lumet, who died last weekend. Lumet was one of the few mainstream directors who could deal with political themes in terms of the personal, and without preaching. Starting in the Yiddish Theatre of Philadelphia he loved actors and never sacrificed the story to a pretentious visual style.

Lumet made 40 films, including the anti-McCarthyite 12 Angry Men. My own two favourites are The Verdict and Q&A which show his feel for Irish-American bishops and cops. Sometime in 1987, during my Hollywood years, he asked me to write a modern version of The Informer -- and immediately grasped why a modern Gyppo Nolan would have to be a good guy.

Although the film faded, I am proud to have spoken to Sidney Lumet, a man who made films that matter, and who did not rat on his commie friends.

Sunday Independent