By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the Irish government opened talks this week in an effort to salvage a new social partnership program amid mounting public-sector-pay unrest, a blunt warning that soaring salaries would “wreck” the Celtic Tiger has been given by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy.
The minister’s comments followed a cabinet statement that said some groups seem determined to pursue their own agendas regardless of the potential impact on the overall economy.
“The government believes that we as a society are at risk of throwing away through unsustainable pay increases, and the substitution of strikes for consensus, the many dramatic improvements in the economy and in living standards which have emerged over recent years,” McCreevy said.
Recent scandals about tax fiddling and the booming economy has led to workers seeking a more equitable share in the country’s newly created affluence.
The 10-year-old series of consensus agreements involving government, workers, employers and farmers delivering industrial peace in return for tax cuts, social legislation and moderate wages increases are under threat as a series of pay claims by public servants appears to be leading to a winter of discontent.
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Pay claims by nurses, gardai, dentists, DART train drivers, Dublin bus workers, teachers and junior doctors are all threatening widespread industrial chaos that could, some fear, unravel interlocking public-pay relativities.
The cabinet laid it on the line for nurses and gardai. It dismissed suggestions that more money would be put on the table in addition to increases already agreed.
The most immediate problem is nurses’ pay. Three of the four unions representing 27,500 nurses have rejected a _100 million Labor Court award and a ballot result is expected to reject the deal on Sept. 22. The court’s award is the culmination of many years of negotiations.
McCreevy said that when pay awards to nurses dating back to 1997 were added up they came to an extra _200 million and granted wage increases in excess of 20 percent. Paying more would lead to knock-on demands in all other areas of the public sector.
“We are just not going to stand idly by to accede to requests from any group which is going to set at nought the whole concept of partnership,” McCreevy said.
“If we are to continue on the present way that some very significant groups in the public service want us to go then we will wreck the whole concept of social partnership and do lasting damage to the economy. It is not that it could wreck the Celtic Tiger, it will.”