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Shane Ross: The kiss of death for Gilmore

I WOULD love to have seen Eamon Gilmore's face when he heard that the whiskered one had appealed to the masses to vote Labour.

It is difficult to imagine how you can fit a muzzle on a man as well endowed with whiskers as Jack, but Eamon must have felt that all his blackest Tuesdays had come together when he was told of Comrade Jack's unsolicited outburst of support.

Jack has almost singlehandedly sunk Eamon's chances of a last-minute revival. His denunciation of the dangers of a Fine Gael government may have delivered the Blueshirts with a six-seat bonus. So Fine Gael could yet have good reason to be grateful to Jack.

The whiskered wonder may carry political clout in Labour but his significance within the economy is diminishing by the day.

Jack is the leader of Siptu, Ireland's biggest union. He doubles up as president of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions.

He and his bearded comrades were puffed up with power in recent years. They were treated as royalty by politicians and press alike.

When Jack and his bearded brother David Begg spoke, they were given due deference by Ireland's craven politicians. The kings of social partnership were the business.

No longer. On Friday, even the less impulsive David became embroiled in a public spat with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny.

Social partnership has been found out. A religion has been revealed as a racket.

Now that Ireland is seeking recovery, what role will the bearded ones play?

Very little.

Two sectors of the Irish economy will lift Ireland out of the recession, namely small businesses and multinationals. Jack and David have as big a part to play in these key areas as Coco the Clown and Nellie the Elephant.

So the only role Jack and David should play in the recovery is to keep their lips buttoned behind their beards. The last person small business or multinationals need to help them out is Jack.

Eamon and Enda should surely be hearing a clear message from small businesses on the election trail.

They are in the latter stages of crucifixion. There are 230,000 small or medium-sized businesses in Ireland. They employ close to 90,000 people.

A fraction of these employees are members of a trade union. They do not defer to David, Jack or Eamon. They are too busy to listen to the bearded brethren's calls to arms. They are in the cold business of survival.

Small business needs oxygen fast. Anyone strolling down the main street of any town or village in Ireland will be familiar with the sector's suffocation. View the empty premises, the dark shop windows and the forbidding shutters pulled down to protect the properties.

Politicians need to realise that this time small businesses are not bluffing. Upward-only rent reviews have marked the death knell of many enterprises. Local authority rates are in arrears. Banks are refusing to extend normal credit. Late payments are in danger of causing liquidity crises, killing businesses from lack of cash flow.

Costs have rocketed. According to the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises (ISME), in the period from 2002 to 2010 they have exceeded the CPI index by a distance.

While the CPI has risen by just 20 per cent over that period, electricity costs have climbed by 74 per cent, gas is up 115 per cent, water charges have risen by 110 per cent and waste charges soared by 160 per cent.

Petrol is up by 37 per cent, diesel by 51 per cent and retail rental rates have risen by 37 per cent. Not to mention labour costs, which are up 42 per cent. It is a miracle that more small businesses have not gone bust.

There are solutions available -- but have our politicians the bottle to implement them? We could easily outlaw upward-only rent reviews but guess who pulls the strings here? Our old friends -- the bankers -- are resisting any rent reductions because they lessen the chances of loan repayments and devalue the property.

Bankers will look a bit stupid if they have lent money to developers on properties where rents are falling. It will mean more bad debts on their books or lower valuations to support their loans.

Bankers are the villains of the piece elsewhere. Their refusal to release more money to small business must be addressed. No gestures, lip service or token schemes are adequate. There is merit in setting up a state-owned, small-business bank. Local authorities can be instructed to reduce rates for a five-year period. Moratoriums must be allowed.

Jack has almost singlehandedly sunk Eamon's chance of a last-minute revival -- Fine Gael could yet have good reason to be grateful to him

Small business is the engine of the Irish economy, a big employer and part of the embedded social fabric. If we allow it to wither for lack of funds or uncompetitive costs thousands more will end up on the dole queues at a prohibitive expense to the State.

Jack and David have no role in the revival of SMEs. One blessing for the hard-pressed owners of these operations is the lack of union members. Mercifully, figures from ISME reveal that over 90 per cent of their members' staff are not unionised.

Jack and David would not be welcome in this haven of Ireland that is not contaminated by social partnership.

Nor would they be welcome in the other great white hope for Irish recovery. The multinationals avoid the bearded ones like the plague. The success stories of the Irish economy -- in good and bad times -- do not roll out the red carpet to welcome Jack and David. Indeed, multinationals like Google, Intel, HP and Facebook would shudder to their foundations if a beard was spotted on the premises.

There are more people employed directly and indirectly in multinationals than there are members in Jack O'Connor's Siptu.

Multinational operations are the vehicles that we are relying on to head the export-led recovery. Like Ryanair, our most successful native company, they will have no truck with Jack or David.

These two should recognise that their influence is waning. The destruction of Fianna Fail and the decline of Labour in the polls may signal the end of the social partners' domination of the Irish economy.

Cowen, Ahern, Gilmore and others in positions of influence have feted these guys as Ireland's unelected oligarchs. They have no part to play in the recovery led by small business and multinationals. The removal of the power of trade union bosses could be the only welcome consequence of the recession.

Eamon Gilmore should rapidly fit a muzzle around poor Jack's beard. He should make it clear that if Labour joins Fine Gael in a coalition for recovery, the trade union monkey will be thrown off his back.

Sunday Indo Business