Backlash from Fianna Fáil TDs makes leave deal unlikely


ANGER AMONG Fianna Fáil TDs at the prospect of unpaid leave being accepted by the Government as a substitute for wage cuts in the public service has made agreement on the proposal unlikely.

A number of TDs told Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan yesterday of their unhappiness that the plan devised by the trade unions was being taken seriously by the Government.

The TDs made their views known at a crowded meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in Leinster House, which was dominated by concern that the Government was perceived to be giving in to union pressure by accepting unpaid leave as a substitute for pay cuts.

It also emerged that Independent Fianna Fáil TD Jim McDaid informed Government Chief Whip Pat Carey in a letter yesterday that he will not vote for the budget if it contains the unpaid leave plan.

“It is an insult to my intelligence if you expect me to vote for it,” Dr McDaid said in his letter to Mr Carey.

“I can’t fathom how this is supposed to work. I simply can’t believe the Government has agreed to give public sector workers 12 days’ unpaid leave to protect their pay scales, pensions and permanent job status,” the Donegal TD told The Irish Times.

The Cabinet had another four-hour meeting on the budget in Government Buildings yesterday evening as union leaders met in the same building to try to formulate agreement on a revised proposal for cutting the public service pay bill.

“The next move is for the unions to make and, in the meantime, the Government is pressing ahead with the budget, which includes its plan to save €1.3 billion in the pay bill. If the unions come forward with a plan it will be examined carefully but, in the meantime, budget preparations continue,” said a Government spokesman.

In another development, international pressure on the Government to deliver its promised €4 billion adjustment intensified yesterday with credit rating agency Moody’s saying it would “closely monitor” the budget. In a statement, Moody’s threatened to further downgrade Irish sovereign debt if Mr Lenihan does not do enough to stabilise public debt.

“Should Ireland’s adjustment capacity prove to be insufficient to stabilise debt affordability and financeability at levels now assumed, a rating downgrade would follow,” said the statement.

Most of about 20 Fianna Fáil TDs contacted by The Irish Times after yesterday’s party meeting said they believed the leave of absence proposal was no longer a runner. Others said they believed that if it was retained, it would form only part of an overall package of real cuts in public sector pay.

At the meeting, Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan gave strong assurances that the Government would achieve €4 billion in savings, would cut public sector pay by €1.3 billion and that the cuts would be permanent.

The Taoiseach also told the meeting that the suggestion of 12 days of leave of absence was one proposal made by the unions that had been studied by Government, but about which no agreement or conclusion had been reached.

Mr Carey said many TDs expressed opposition to the proposal. “They were concerned that if it was the only part of the package it would send out a message that Government was not resolute in maintaining fiscal policy.”

Limerick West TD Niall Collins said much concern had been expressed about the leave and he spoke strongly against it on grounds of workability and vagueness.

Sean Connick from Wexford said that 85 per cent of members felt it was unworkable and unfair to others, like those on social welfare who were facing cuts. “It will be an impossible sell,” he said. Seán Power, Kildare South, said he saw no real merit in it as part of a solution.

Chief union negotiator Peter McLoone said last night that while he knew people in Government and on the backbenches were unnerved by unpaid leave plans, it was “critically important that people hold their nerve and wait for the outcome”.