OPW Minister Seán Canney said increasing calls for public sector pay rises are the biggest challenge facing the Government.
After an autumn dominated by gardaí, teachers and nurses pay-related strike threats and, speaking days after Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirmed public pension levels will be put under scrutiny as part of the public pay commission’s work early next year, Mr Canney said giving in to calls to speed up the restoration of pre-crash pay rates is not an option.
Supporting Fine Gael’s view on the matter, the Independent Alliance TD said Government must be “responsible” and not give in to demands.
“The single biggest challenge we have in the next term of the Dáil and going forward will be public sector pay, and that is going to be the biggest challenge for us as a Government.
“We don’t have that money and, as a Government, we have to be responsible, we cannot say that we will go and borrow that money.
“We cannot be going back to the bad old days.
“There is this pressure from people who, justifiably, are looking for payback for what they did for this country. But it has to be done in a measured way and it has to be done in a gradual way,” he said.
While the comment is likely to prove deeply unpopular among public service workers who are facing increased financial pressures due to rent, mortgage, car insurance, and tax demands, Mr Canney said the existing plan to restore salaries to pre-crash levels over the next four years should be “respected”.
Addressing the imminent nurses strike, plans by Siptu health workers to ballot for industrial action early next year and teachers’ union ASTI’s continued calls for immediate pay rises, he said workers should “come back in under that agreement” for the benefit of the country.
“If we have to find money to meet these demands we are going to have to find the money from existing budget.
“So while there is a clamour to do something in health, there is a clamour to do something in housing, there is a clamour to do something on flooding.
“If we have to pull money back in from those areas and if we have to say to people in disabilities that you cannot have your service plan because we don’t have enough money for it, that is where we are going to have tough decisions to make.
“It would put enormous pressure under us,” he said.
The comments came days after Mr Kenny said the public pay commission which is examining the issue, and is due to report by early summer, will also be tasked with reviewing public worker pension rates amid concerns they are proving too costly.
While the move appears to contradict a new HSE nurses recruitment drive which points to strong pension benefits among other explanations for why nurses should return to Ireland, it follows an independent Government-commissioned report last month which claimed the average Garda receives €100,000 a year when pension entitlements are included.
Renegotiation of the Lansdowne Road Agreement is not due to begin until September.