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Grasp the nettle on our problems

COULD it be that people are only now beginning to truly understand that December's €4bn slashing Budget will affect all of our lives in very real ways?

Could it be that our politicians are only beginning to grasp the reality?

The Opposition party delegates who were briefed on Monday by the Department of Finance appeared genuinely taken aback by the size of the problem, although they have been talking about it for long enough.

Their problem -- and the Government's too -- has been that the picture has been constantly changing over recent months.

The extent of the cuts and taxes required is much greater now, due to increasingly pessimistic estimates of economic growth in the year and years ahead.

In truth, basing estimates of the budgetary deficit on guesstimates of renewed growth, which is subject to so many influences outside the control of government, was always going to be an exercise in blind optimism.

If the Finance Department briefing came as a bolt from the blue for the opposition parties, a series of shock-horror stories on health and, today, social welfare, brings home the peril of the country's situation to the public at large.

The news that up to €1bn is to be removed from the Health Service Executive's budget next year can be translated into a diminished service, since 70pc of HSE spending is on wages, now ringfenced by the Croke Park agreement.

Health spending was cut by about €1bn last year, but much of that came from cuts in core pay.

This time around, the cuts will have to come from cutting services, or procurement, or health workers' overtime.

But the head of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has warned that his members will seek compensation for any loss of earnings under new working arrangements.

If the Croke Park agreement is to have any meaning, the public service is going to have to deliver its side of the deal. So far, it is far from certain that public service unions will agree to specific arrangements to cut overtime or redeploy staff.

It is not clear that they share the general dawning understanding of the sacrifices that have to made if the country is to survive as a sovereign entity.

Irish Independent