Tens of thousands join nationwide union marches


Tens of thousands of people took to the streets today as part of a campaign organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) for a “fairer” alternative to the Government’s budgetary strategy.

Ictu is holding demonstrations and rallies at eight locations around the country – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Tullamore and Dundalk – in support of its 10-point plan for a fairer way to national recovery. All of the demonstrations began at 2.30pm.

Gardaí said at least 30,000 people marched in Dublin, with union leaders putting the figure at nearer 70,000. Early estimates suggested between 12,000 and 15,000 people turned out in Cork, with marchers taking some 25 minutes to leave the start point at Connolly Hall, on their route along Merchants Quay. In Waterford, gardaí estimated a turnout of about 9,000 people, while approximately 6,000 people gathered in Galway.

Several hundred people also attended a rally today in Belfast, one of ten that were held across Northern Ireland.

Addressing the demonstration in Dublin, Ictu general secretary David Begg said there were "two essential pillars" of the Government's plan on the economy.

"The first has the goal of reducing our borrowing requirement to 3 per cent by 2013. And that starts with a €4 billion cut in public spending in this budget," Mr Begg said. "But there is something funny going on here. Last April, the Government stated that it would find the €4 billion by way of tax and cuts - they had pencilled in about €2.5 billion by way of tax increases.

"But this plan has ceased to exist. It was dropped without comment or complaint. And that is a testament to the huge influence of the rich and powerful in this country. They knew the taxes were for them, they saw them off.

"The second pillar of public policy is dressed up as a device for fiscal correction, but in reality is a desire to impose pay cuts: on public and private alike. And cutting the minimum wage and social welfare rates is central to this."

Mr Begg said the problem with both of these is that they would impart "a severe deflationary shock to the economy, probably driving it into a long term slump. And if that happens we are in deep, deep trouble."

In a rousing speech in Dublin,  Siptu president Jack O’Connor vowed the protests would continue unless the Government targeted the richest in society over the least well-off.  “We will not go away, we will not roll over, we will not surrender regardless of what they do,” Mr O’Connor said. “We insist the people at the top of society pay their contribution and that is the only solution to this particular issue.”

In Waterford, Mayor John Halligan said the next year would be a defining moment for this country and that workers had to ask what their quality of life would be like. He said six years ago Ireland was recognised as one of the richest countries in the world.

"We have reached the state we are in now, because we are in a crony state with a group of politicians who have no sense of morality," he said.

President of Waterford Trades Council, Tommy Hogan, said the fair and better solution workers wanted would only come as a direct result of the resistance they put up to the programme the Government is putting forward, where workers were carrying the burden.

“We’ve had enough. Enough of attacking incomes, our social services and of the golden circle running the country in their own interests," Mr Hogan said.

Jimmy Kelly, regional secretary of the Unite trade union said the only way to protect private sector pay was to protect public sector pay. He said workers "resented" what he said were the Government’s attempts to drive a wedge between the public and private sector.

The Frontline Services Alliance urged its members to support today’s protests. The alliance, which represents public servants including nurses, gardaí, firefighters and prison officers, said the marches show Ictu is “harnessing the anger of all PAYE workers to start campaign for a fairer deal”.

However, employers’ group Ibec said that the Ictu demonstrations would be counter-productive and would not make any contribution towards making jobs secure.

Chairman of the public service committee of Ictu, Peter McLoone, said that the reason the protests were taking place was because the trade union movement had been engaging with the Government for the last seven months without success.

He said unions had cancelled a planned day of protest in March to give time for a possible agreed solution.

“The people we represent now want to vent their anger and their frustration and that is why they are taking to the streets. In the meantime, we continue our efforts to try and find a solution that will avert the protest escalating into strikes later in the month,” he said.

Ibec criticised both the Ictu day of action and the threatened national public sector strike scheduled for November 24th.

Ibec director of industrial relations Brendan McGinty said: “These are extraordinary times. Old solutions and old-style protests will not make one Irish person better off or their job more secure.”

Mr McGinty said that when the facts were presented, almost everybody privately accepted that reductions of income were inevitable if jobs were to be protected.

Ictu said it wanted to stress that there were no talks under way with the Government on a possible new national agreement. It said that the only discussions taking place were between the Government and public sector unions on the reduction of the public sector pay bill.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has insisted that protests and industrial disputes will not resolve the country’s economic problems. He told an economic conference in Dublin yesterday a cut of €1.3 billion in the public sector pay and pensions bill would have to be implemented in the budget. But he said the Government was anxious to work with trade unions to find an agreed way of securing these savings.

Mr Cowen again ruled out raising income tax rates next year – a key demand of the unions.

"The present situation isn’t sustainable, and we have a vision for the public service in the future. It will be a smaller service which will be one that has been outlined in various reports and need to get on with that project,” Mr Cowen said.

He added that the Government would try to find these cuts “on an agreed basis if possible”.