Prime minister outlines priorities at ICTU conference

In a recent speech at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ biennial conference, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern outlined the main issues facing the social partners, in advance of a fresh round of national talks towards the end of 2007. The prime minister reassured the trade unions that the government is committed to the social partnership approach in dealing with the impending challenges to maintain the competitiveness of the Irish economy.

At the recent biennial conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which took place in County Donegal in the north of the Republic of Ireland on 2–5 July 2007, the Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach), Bertie Ahern addressed the trade union delegates.

Mr Ahern opened his speech by charging some commentators with the fact that they ‘were telling us, not so long ago, that our approach was all wrong, that social partnership was a mistake, that centralised pay bargaining could not deliver. They were wrong then, and they are still wrong’. Mr Ahern challenged the trade unions ‘to confound your critics, to demonstrate that your mission belongs to the future, as well as to the past’. He reassured the trade unions that ‘difficult and painful as some of the changes we will need to make together may be, this government is committed to working with you’.

Pay and inflation

Turning to pay and inflation, Mr Ahern promised that the government was going to respond effectively to the challenge created by inflationary pressures. He confirmed that ‘a frank discussion’ had taken place between the social partners about the pressures on the living standards of workers and their families and the cost pressures that companies face when trying to sell into global markets. Mr Ahern highlighted that there seemed to be a ‘clear consensus that no-one wants to go back to the wage/price inflationary spiral that saw real living standards drop by 7%, despite a 77% increase in nominal pay, between 1981 and 1987’. He asserted that ‘we will not reinvent the problem that social partnership was created to solve’.

Regulating employment flexibility

Mr Ahern maintained that the government is making real progress on employment standards, with the establishment of the new National Employment Rights Agency (NERA) within the Department of Social and Family Affairs (An Roinn Gnóthaí Sóisialacha agus Teaghlaigh). With regard to temporary agency work, the Taoiseach emphasised its vital role in facilitating flexibility in the way work is organised. He maintained, however, that if it is the case that rising levels of activity by employment agencies ‘are having a harmful impact on accepted terms and conditions or, again, if we find that non-national workers are being exploited in the way agencies operate, then employers and unions, and the government will need to look again at what is the right balance in regulating employment agencies and agency workers’.

In relation to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Mr Ahern clarified the confusion that arose following the June European Council summit in Brussels: ‘The issue of our position on the Charter of Fundamental Rights during that Council meeting has attracted much coverage, not all of it well informed. The government’s support for the Charter has not diminished. We were happy with it in 2004, we are happy with it in 2007.’

Mr Ahern insisted that Ireland was not seeking any ‘opt-out’, as had been reported: ‘We simply, prudently and sensibly indicated that we would wish to study the implications of the UK position regarding their request to introduce a Protocol on the Charter relating to its scope in UK law’ (UK0707049I).

Public service to deliver reform

The Taoiseach underlined that the future of the public service, the quality of its employment and the continued flow of its funding can be guaranteed only when its quality, efficiency, productivity and responsiveness to the citizen are transparently beyond challenge. He highlighted: ‘That is the test. Your president has been strong on this issue for some time and I agree with his analysis. If we act on it, there is no reason to doubt the future for our public service at the heart of a stronger Ireland.’ In saying this, Mr Ahern referred to a recent challenge brought forward by the outgoing ICTU President, Peter McLoone, for the public service to deliver reform.

Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing

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