EUROPEAN Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton has called for a freezing of public service increments and warns that workers must be prepared for more stringent conditions and pain — saying some “sacred cows ... can no longer remain sacred cows”.
Ms Creighton also says Cabinet members agree with her that businessman, Denis O’Brien, should not appear in public with government figures, and that Ireland’s presidency of the EU is an opportunity to help rebuild the country’s reputation around the globe.
Meanwhile, the Dublin South East TD says she wants the Croke Park deal with trade unions overhauled before the next budget as part of a re-negotiation of the Programme for Government.
“The Programme for Government is a compromise between two political parties and any review of it would be also a compromise.
“For me, it’s clear that some of the sacred cows in Irish political life over the last number of years can no longer remain sacred cows.
“And that obviously means it’s not really down to the Programme for Government, it’s more down to the negotiation of the new Croke Park deal. I think that will be very important in terms of putting issues on the table that have been excluded from the debate on the budget up until this point.
“For next year, the issue of increments, the issue of pay, all of these aspects of government expenditure have to be considered. That’s currently happening through the negotiations on Croke Park II but I suppose it would also have to be reflected in some review of the Programme for Government. So that would be the core for me.”
She says Fine Gael needs to stand up for people who are most vulnerable and that means “there has to be give and take and there will have to be compromises”.
Asked if she had concerns that changes to the pay agreement with trade unions could lead to industrial unrest in the country, Ms Creighton replied: “Everybody in the State has to play their part — I’m part of the public service as a politician. I think we all have to be prepared for more stringent conditions, for more pain essentially, but that’s in order to protect the most vulnerable people in society.”
She suggests that bonus payments or public service increments — estimated to cost €170m this year — should at least be halted until the economy recovers.
“They can be frozen, they were frozen for politicians four years ago. I think at a time of economic crisis which we’re in, I think sometimes people almost forget, even in government we forget, that we are in economic crisis in this country.”
The minister says changes to pay deals with public service workers needed to form part of next year’s budget.
“I think for next year’s budget, that would be my view. There are very low-paid workers in the public sector, I’m not advocating pay cuts, or that those people be hit any further. But at the middle and higher ranks of the public service, I think that the payment of increments on an ongoing basis, as we have at least another three years of fiscal consolidation, I don’t think its compatible at all.”
Ms Creighton last year said that the Government should not invite businessman Denis O’Brien to another economic global forum due to the negative findings of the Moriarty Tribunal, which inquired into the sale of the country’s second mobile phone licence.
Labour’s Joan Burton later criticised an appearance by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the New York Stock Exchange with the telecoms billionaire and raised questions about members of the Government interacting with individuals criticised by tribunals.
Ms Creighton subsequently received a strongly worded critical letter from Mr O’Brien in which he criticised her disapproval of his appearance at the economic forum.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Ms Creighton stood over her opinion and said she believed that Government figures should not share a public stage with Mr O’Brien.
Asked if this was the view of Cabinet members, she said: “Certainly those that I’ve discussed it with would certainly share that view but I haven’t discussed it with all members of Cabinet.”
Asked if she was taken aback by Mr O’Brien’s letter to her, particularly given the fact that he had such large business interests in Ireland, Ms Creighton said she was surprised by it, but added: “I’m not necessarily impressed by people’s wealth or how important they’re viewed to be by themselves or their friends. I just have to take positions on issues that I consider to be of grave national public importance and do what I think is right and say what I think needs to be said.
“That’s what I’ve done in that case and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Ms Creighton also said she believed Ireland had an opportunity to rebuild its reputation while hosting the EU presidency.
“This opportunity, the European presidency, is really the icing on the cake for that. It shows not just to the other 26 member states, but to the US, to big global players, that Ireland... can sit in the driving seat at European level. We can drive the decision-making agenda, we can represent the European Union all over the world, we can do it with pride and with gusto and I think it is an important message to send to the rest of the world.”
More than 1,600 meetings are organised during the presidency, which will attract 30,000 people here. The Government says stability, jobs, and growth will be key goals of the term.
On a personal level, Ms Creighton says she and her husband, Senator Paul Bradford, rarely have time to relax as a couple with such busy lives, but adds: “I’m very fortunate in that my husband is a politician, he understands politics and he’s very understanding. And appreciates you know, I’m not going to be a minister forever.”