Pensions the real issue - It’s time to be realistic about crisis

Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte was unambiguous about the consequences of any power cuts

The decision by unions at the ESB to lift the disproportionate threat of a Christmas power strike is very welcome for myriad reasons.

The impasse that threatened to undermine the longed-for fillip the holiday season usually brings to the retail and entertainment sectors was resolved after an 11th-hour deal was reached between ESB management and unions after negotiations at the Labour Relations Commission yesterday. Those whose challenging job it is to attract foreign investment into Ireland cannot have been any less relieved than those directly involved.

In reality any other conclusion than the one reached yesterday afternoon would have been reckless in the extreme and unacceptable. It would have jeopardised so much of the good work, achieved at great cost, done to rebuild our shattered economy.

Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte was unambiguous about the consequences of any power cuts, pointing out that his office had been contacted by some of the multinationals central to our growth prospects about the very negative consequences of a holiday power blackout.

In truth it is hard not to imagine that the majority of ESB workers will be happy, or at least content, with the outcome because they must realise that they enjoy some of the very best working conditions and job security available in Ireland today.

It would be dishonest, though, not to acknowledge that if the ESB pension pot, the issue in dispute, was as vulnerable as some — remember, just some — union voices suggest, then there would have been a degree of empathy if not sympathy for the power workers. After all, tens of thousands of others have been betrayed on pensions. Many of these workers would wish they had the same leverage as the power workers to try to rectify their situation but they do not. However, weekend reports that the ESB pension fund is in a far healthier state than some union voices suggest scuppered even that slight possibility of support.

Though the security of our power supply was the immediate issue, the strike that was threatened for next Monday is rooted in a far wider problem, one that reaches into every corner and nearly every family in Ireland.

The ESB workers may fret about pensions but many, many others have far greater reasons to worry about their retirement incomes. The collapse of pensions and the contracts around them is a great scandal and an escalating problem for nearly everyone right across the private sector.

The Government response — levies on private pension funds and changes in the tax arrangements on contributions — does not suggest that Government, whether the permanent one or the elected one, has any real understanding of the crisis or its implications. The idea of a ministry to deal with pensions has been floated many times but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears, albeit ones not yet affected by the crisis. The simmering ESB pensions row, and many others like it right across the economy, strengthen rather than weaken the proposal. Before the idea of holiday power cuts is forgotten we should all consider the immediate and long-term implications of not confronting this crisis.

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