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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 3, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    The Rebels within awaken

    Harry McGee

    Being a backbencher for a Government party is the most unenviable job in Irish politics. Made more so because there is no tradition of rebellion here as they have in Westminster.Occasionally, we hear mutinous noises – usually about the impact of a policy (like drink driving or the smoking ban) on constituents. Or if a policy is going to be too hard on people.  But mutinies are quickly quelled. Only on rare occasions do we see the whip being withdrawn. It is a rareity indeed to see a deputy cross the chamber, as Joe Behan did at the tail end of 2007.

    There was a potential mutiny afoot in Fianna Fail yesterday following the leaking of details of the deal that was being worked out between the Government and public sector unions.

    But what was really unusual about this is that TDs rebelled not because the Government’s stance was too hard but because it wasn’t hard enough.

    Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan have been softening and conditioning TDs and Senators for months about a savage budget. All have come around to it.

    It was galling for some to see yesterday that the person who seemed to be getting cold feet about this was the person who told them to brace themselves for a savaging because there was no alternative.

    It looks really bad for Cowen. Those who were angry yesterday included many who were not the usual suspects. His credibility with his own TDs has suffered a huge fall in the past 24 hours. Hence, the sudden toughening up of attitude by senior Government ministers today.

    It’s not been said but there’s also a clash between Cowen and Lenihan that may turn out to be a sytemic problem  in the long-term(ie not sorted out without a leadership tussle).


    The Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting was packed today. At least 30 TDs spoke, all with the same voice. They just don’t like the unpaid leave proposal. Nor do their constituents. And they want the €4 billion cuts implemented.

    Cowen and Lenihan told them that what was reported reflected the union position, and not any agreement.

    But did it?

    The key question is: was there some backsliding from Government earlier this week? Did Cowen agree, even tentatively, to an arrangement on leave that would save €1 billion and not the €1.3 that Brian Lenihan has been talking about for many months now.

    It is certain that there something of a face-saving operation to be gleaned from union announcements on Tuesday night. They had to show grounds for calling off today’s stoppage. If it had gone ahead, there is some evidence to suggest it would not have been a success. But did union leaders claim gains and concessions that had not been gained or conceded by Government? Did they oversell their own progress?

    It’s not going to be possible to find a definitive answer to that. There are rumours that a deal had been struck and the Government is now backsliding. On the other side, there are also stories that the Government allowed the unions some leeway on public pronouncements because the strike was being called off. And that some of them took liberties and oversold it.

    Whatever the interpretation, the big loser who came out of all of this was Cowen himself.


    Cabinet meeting went on until after 7pm. Looks like the 12 day leave of absence proposal is no longer a real runner. If it is it will be in diluted form.

    • Joe says:

      Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan have been softening and conditioning TDs and Senators for months about a savage budget. All have come around to it.

      And I think that goes for the rest of the country. Having raised the spectre of the IMF, people are more prepared to take a hit, but are less forgiving to others taking softer blows.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      The odd thing is that the practice of unpaid leave is not uncommon in the private sector but there it is called a temporary shut-down. There, it is done because there is little work to be done. In the public sphere there is loads of work to be done, but simply not enough money to pay for it. Some of the farce of this can be seen in the hinting from the teachers who seemed to believe that any unpaid leave would be taken in school time! In addition to their paid leave!

      It all comes back to the problem in the public sector world view with regard to benchmarking, they saw it as more money paid so that they would consider reforms that would mean they do more work for the extra money.

      Now we have less money to go around and the state’s position is that we need them to do the same work for less money but their position is that they are inclined to offer us more work for the same money. We won’t have the money!

      The problem is that too many people appear to think the €4 billion is a once off, that next year we would be cutting the same €4 billion when it will be an additional €4 billion and then an additional €3 and finally €2 after that. All to bridge a gap of €20 billion. That €20 billion is the baseline for the gap this year, next year and the years after. The boom money from construction is not coming back for perhaps a generation if ever but the public sector are operating as if they just need to ride our a few years and it will all be magically hunky dory.

    • dealga says:

      He has made an absolute clowen out of himself. You know, assuming he hadn’t already many times over.

    • Michael says:

      Didn’t Joe Behan leave FF during October 2008, following the (first) 2009 budget?

    • Brendan Needham says:

      That trade union leaders such as Liam Doran see fit to tell those not directly involved in current talks (i.e. backbench TDs) “to keep their mouths shut” until negotiations have been completed shows that unions now firmly believe they are running the country.

      This view is a direct result of the government’s dealings with unions over the last decade. Bertie Ahern’s inability to say ‘no’ to unions and instead accede to their every wish in the interest of maintaining “social partnership” at all costs gave the unions power and influence that they simply should not have had.

      Brian Cowen’s apparent agreement to 12 days’ unpaid leave in lieu of direct pay cuts displays a weakness and inability to take tough decisions that bodes ill for the government’s attempts to extricate the economy from the mess it currently finds itself in.

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