Ireland: Croke Park Deal faces new attacks: Defend Jobs and Services

Just short of a year since the General Election and the Croke Park Agreement is in the news once more. This is no surprise, we explained in advance that because of the economic situation any deal that was struck would be short lived. On the one side the Government would come back for more and the commitment to no wage cuts for four years would be meaningless. On the other hand the agreement to “reform” public services under these conditions was a sign of serious weakness from the ICTU leadership, which could lead to a serious assault on the working class. Less than 11 months after the General election a number of Fine Gael TD’s have demanded that the deal is dumped. Here’s what the Sunday Independent reported on January 22nd:

A significant number of backbenchers from all around the country are angered by the lack of progress to date on pushing through reforms and seven have dramatically broken ranks from the party line to publicly voice their opposition to the deal.

Speaking to this newspaper, the angry Fine Gael TDs have said the promise not to cut public sector pay until 2014 is totally "unsustainable".

Their strong opposition to Croke Park comes in the wake of a survey of coalition councillors last week, which showed that a huge majority -- 73 per cent -- now wanted the deal either renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

The calls from the Fine Gael backbenches will heap significant pressure on Mr Kenny, but also on Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who has previously pledged to honour Croke Park -- even if the European crisis worsens.

The TDs who are opposed to maintaining Croke Park in its current form are now calling on their ministerial colleagues to abandon or radically overhaul the agreement.

Dublin South TD Olivia Mitchell yesterday called on the Cabinet to "stop pretending" that Croke Park is affordable any longer.

She said: "It is totally unsustainable. It is just not working. The time has come to stop pretending that everything is sustainable.

"I would go further. Even if Croke Park was working, we still couldn't afford it. People have said Croke Park is the price of industrial peace, but it is too high a price."

Wexford TD Dr Liam Twomey said the slow implementation of reforms was making the agreement "no longer viable".

He pointedly blamed union leaders for frustrating the reform process and said their actions would lead to Croke Park being "tossed in the bin".

Mr Twomey added: "Public sector workers have to tackle their leaders and force them to stop frustrating the process of reform. We can’t afford this any longer."

It might be worth considering for a while why the agreement has lasted until now. There are a number of reasons. In the first instance the Fianna Fáil/Green Coalition were too weak to carry out the “reform” programme. They were reduced to lame duck status as the crisis in the economy and the state finances developed and the scale of the problems at AIB became more apparent.  The question of the EU bailout cut the legs out from underneath them and it was obvious that the four year budget deal was drafted, proof read and given the imprimatur by the Troika. The IMF,EU and ECB were anxious to try and find a political consensus between the Coalition and Labour and FG at the time. There was even talk of a Grand Coalition, a national government of all the parties, burying their differences in the interests of the state. While that unlikely little plan didn’t come off the truth is that the new Coalition is treading more or less the same path.

Secondly, the bailout eased the immediate problems of the state finances and combined with the imminence of the General Election postponed the attacks on the public sector workers for a temporary period. The process of so called “reform” is inevitably slower than the frantic pace of the emergency budgets and the wage cuts. The “reforms” have to be worked through in every office and every hospital and government office. At every stage the Fine Gael and Labour Coalition will be opposed by workers forced to defend their terms and conditions, working patterns and services. However, even one year into the agreement the main bosses were arguing:

Ibec said that getting the economy back on track required “a major reduction in public spending”.

“In many areas far-reaching reform is still needed as a matter of urgency, including the need to reduce staff numbers, redeploy staff and standardise working hours. If this cannot be achieved on a voluntary basis, the government will have to take at a different approach,” Mr Butler added.

Small and medium enterprise group Isme said the pace of reform was too slow and that the level of savings to date was “negligible in comparison to what is urgently required to address the exchequer deficit”.

“It is still the view of the Association, particularly with the deterioration of the budgetary position, that the Croke Park Agreement should be scrapped,” Isme chief executive Mark Fielding said.

“Savings of €600 million to date and a reported reduction in employment numbers of 5,349 since the deal was introduced, do not come anywhere near the level required.” Irish Times 15/6/11

There will be enormous pressure over the next couple of years on the Croke Park Deal from the government wanting to attack wages and from workers defending services and conditions. That pressure will be most noticeable at the top of the Trade union movement. We already saw a similar process develop during the “talks about talks about talks” during 2009 and early 2010. This situation today is not fundamentally different. That is of course in spite of Eamon Gilmore’s much vaunted defence of the interests of working class people, the old the young and the sick in the aftermath of the General Election.

There have been many examples already of local struggles, the task of the trade union leaders must be to generalise the struggles and to support workers on the ground trying to defend hard won gains and vital services. The solidarity and the support that has been shown to the Vita Cortex workers and previously the workers at Waterford Crystal from the local population and Trade Unionists illustrates that the so called division between the private and public sector workers is really an illusion. There is no reason whatsoever why local struggles can’t be won. The importance of the Public Sector to the state’s economy and also the fact that Public Sector workers and Private sector workers aren’t divided by light years from each other, but live in the same families, in the same streets and communities mean that an attack on the Public Sector workers is an attack on the whole of the working class.