Leo Varadkar’s radical plan to ban workers from striking has provoked a backlash among trade unions and parties and threatened to destabalise new pay deal talks with public sector employees.
The frontrunner to be next taoiseach was accused of launching a Thatcher-like draconian attack on workers and of pandering to a right- wing base.
Opening clashes in the Fine Gael leadership contest also took place as rivals Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney prepare to go head-to-head in heated debates later this week.
Mr Varadkar launched policies yesterday, including the idea of outlawing industrial action and radical proposals to reform tax, pensions and the first-time buyers scheme.
Leadership rival Simon Coveney said the timing of the strike ban plan, where employees and workers would be obliged to stick to Labour Court rulings, was “unfortunate”.
The housing minister also threatened to open up a war of words with his rival, accusing Mr Varadkar of using his ministerial position to canvass for the party leadership.
“I don’t know how Leo came to be Minister for Social Protection,” he told Today FM’s The Last Word. “I don’t try to look for an easy job so I can canvass for another job.”
But Mr Coveney is facing a near-impossible challenge to win the leadership, commanding less than half the level of support among Fine Gael parliamentarians compared to Mr Varadkar.
Both contenders have launched ideas to lead Fine Gael ahead of four nights of debates this week.
But it was Leo Varadkar’s proposal to limit strikes for essential or emergency service workers which provoked anger yesterday, just as trade unions opened talks with the Government on a new pay deal.
ICTU general secretary Patricia King led criticisms of the social protection minister’s idea, warning that it would meet with strong resistance from workers.
“It bears all the hallmarks of an ill-thought-out idea launched in the heat of an electoral contest and designed to pander to right- wing elements.”
National Bus and and Rail Union general secretary Dermot O’Leary said: “Whilst I’m not at all surprised with Leo ‘Thatcher’ Varadkar, I would be amazed and appalled if Fianna Fáil, through its supply and confidence agreement, was to support such a draconian attack on workers in this country.”
Mr Varadkar said he would not characterise his idea as a ‘strike ban’, but admitted that Labour Court rulings would indeed be binding on employers and workers.
“That would be the end of it,” he said.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin branded the idea a “dog-whistle to a right-wing base” while Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary said his party would not support the idea and it “will not be introduced in the current Dáil”.
In his policy document, which would play second fiddle to the programme for government and the deal with Fianna Fáil, Mr Varadkar committed to reforming the Universal Social Charge, to refunding water charges this year, to increase capital spending for major projects and to allow universities spend more if over 50% of their money is generated privately.
Mr Varadkar’s paper says he could scrap the ‘Help To Buy’ scheme introduced by Mr Coveney, to instead fund incentives to get older people out of their homes and therefor ease housing demand.
He also committed to a referendum on abortion next year.
Meanwhile, Mr Coveney last night defended his housing policy after it was singled out by Mr Varadkar.
He also questioned Varadkar’s claim that water charges should be paid back by the end of the year depending on advice from the public expenditure minister.
Mr Varadkar, for his part, rejected claims that his policies were like those of former British prime minster Margaret Thatcher.
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