WHAT a pity there was no strike last Thursday. Some of us were longing for it.
If the trades union leaders had called a strike they would have suffered bloody noses.
Support for industrial disruption was shrinking by the hour. Our bearded comrades had read the runes hopelessly wrong. Far from being militant, their own members were ready to accept further pain. The bearded ones were in a corner. They had led the troops into a cul de sac. Another day off meant another day’s loss of pay. There was little appetite among good ordinary public service workers for that. For once the Government had the public behind it.
Suddenly Brian Cowen, of all people, rode to the rescue. Faced with the prospect of a decisive triumph, he folded his tent. Winning a battle against the unions frightened the life out of the Taoiseach.
Instead of sampling a rare moment of victory , he threw a lifeline to union leaders David Begg, Jack O’Connor and Peter McLoone.
As the strike loomed — less than 48 hours away — the David, Jack and Peter show began to wilt. No one dreaded another “national day of protest” more than the three brethren. Thursday’s demonstration was destined to be a flop. And they all knew it.
Cowen produced a fig leaf. He would offer unpaid compulsory days off instead of pay cuts.
Mannah from heaven. The unions were off the hook. The day of action was abandoned.
The bearded ones immediately went to work on the media: this was a great victory for the old comrades; happy days were here again; there would be no pay cuts.
There were champagne corks popping to the rhythm of the Internationale all over Liberty Hall; bubbly must have dripping all over their beards; the Taoiseach had bottled it, probably fearing that the trades unions might lose all authority if Thursday’s strike was a flop. Cowen, a child of the Bertie Ahern school of partnership junkies, craves the social partners’ deadly embrace. Suddenly sighting the prize of victory, he grabbed the comfort of defeat. Like his predecessor Bertie, he was comfortable with David, Jack and Peter.
Far more comfortable than he was with his own TDs.
Ireland’s trades unions have subverted our democracy. Their 20-year power grab had propelled them into a stronger position than most elected TDs. That is the way the Taoiseach and Bertie preferred it. Better the bearded brethren than bellyaching backbenchers.
The comrades nearly pulled off their coup d’etat.
Happily, they failed. The nation should raise its glasses this weekend to an unlikely trio of Fianna Fail deputies who had the courage to express their horror at the Taoiseach’s gesture. Michael Mulcahy , Chris Andrews and Mattie McGrath surfaced on RTE’s Morning Ireland to rubbish their leader’s well-leaked plot. Their outbursts required courage, because it is not the Fianna Fail way to challenge their Taoiseach on the airwaves. Such bravery usually ensures a prolonged period of punishment in the political wilderness, but this time the rebellion snowballed.
The vehemence of the opposition from within his own ranks startled Cowen. While on Tuesday evening the unions were cleverly camouflaging their surrender over the day of protest by claiming victory at the talks, by Wednesday morning their saviour was suddenly singing a different tune. In the Dail, Brian Cowen insisted that there was no deal. There was utter confusion.
In reality Fianna Fail backbenchers had scored a hook against the head. They had decided to put manners on the Taoiseach and the social partners. Cowen was forced to paddle a new canoe. He was sticking with the overall €4bn figure for savings but was no longer insisting on the rigid €1.3bn figure from public service savings. He still wanted to give the beloved comrades wriggle room.
Cowen had blown it. Fianna Fail rank and file TDS, psyched-up to take hard decisions, had donned their flak jackets. They were ready to sell an across-the-board pay cut. These guys hear the grass grow better than anyone on God’s earth. They knew that the public was ready for pain, but they knew even better that the average citizen was sick of the grandstanding from David, Jack and Peter. It was high time to tackle trades union diktats.
In the face of a backbench rebellion the Cabinet panicked. On Thursday Conor Lenihan, brother of the only minister with real guts — Finance Finance Brian Lenihan — was dispatched to the Morning Ireland studios to blame Wednesday’s Irish Independent headline:”Cowen caves in over public sector pay cuts”. No deal was yet done, insisted Conor, nodding deferentially in the direction of the backbenchers. His brother remains a beacon of rectitude in a cabinet programmed to wave the white flag at the sight of an approaching beard.
A period of negotiating chaos opened. Some estimates put the sums saved under the leaked package as much as €500m short of the €1300m target. The unions thought they had a deal on Tuesday evening, only to find on Wednesday that the unwelcome forces of democracy had blocked them. The backbenchers reflected public anger when they laughed to scorn the barmy “solution” of state employees being forced to take 12 days compulsory leave.
More absurd still was the suggestion that all the public servants’ lost pay would be restored when the economy picks up. This proposal drove private sector workers into a frenzy.
Fianna Fail backbenchers eloquently voiced these views at Thursday’s parliamentary party meeting when a message was sent to the Cabinet that they were not wearing another capitulation to the boys with beards. Nor would they swallow further token promises of reforms in the public service. The infamous benchmarking bonanza a few years ago was conditional on public service reform. It never happened. They were not going to be taken for a ride for a second time.
Most union leaders seemed shell-shocked by these impertinent democrats. Not Liam Doran, the spokesman for the nurses, the most deserving of all public servants. Doran did his members no favours on Thursday. He could hardly wait to hog the cameras outside Government Buildings when he told the outside world to “back off and keep their mouths shut”. Important matters of State were no business of others. Leave it to the unelected social partners. The suspicion lingered that Doran was not only reflecting the irritation of the comrades , but the impatience of the Taoiseach himself.
The oligarchs could not stomach a challenge from the democrats.
But the plucky democrats finally won the day. On Friday afternoon Cowen was forced to choose between his backbenchers and the beards. He bowed to the demands of political survival and abandoned the talks.
Next Wednesday, Brian Lenihan will present the first Budget for two decades without the bearded brethren breathing down his back. He alone is capable of taking tough decisions and beating the International Monetary Fund away from the door. Let him get on with the job while the unions go off to Liberty Hall in a huff.
This weekend let us offer three cheers for a gallant group of Fianna Fail backbenchers.
‘The Bankers: How the Banks Brought Ireland to its Knees’ by Shane Ross, published by Penguin, is in all bookshops nationwide