Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

As world teeters on brink of ruin, this strikes wrong note

Winter of discontent: workers in Dublin protest against austerity measures

Have the organisers of Wednesday's national strike stopped reading newspapers and turned off their radios, televisions, iPhones and laptops?

They must have. How else can one explain their actions against the dire economic outlook across the Western world?

If ever there was a more inappropriate time to strike, it is now. Bankruptcy. Negative equity. Cost-cutting. Job losses. This is the headline language of winter 2011.

Northern Ireland is floundering in a huge sea of austerity stretching from one side of Europe to the other yet, come Wednesday, our public services are likely to be severely disrupted - if not at a complete standstill.

The authority of the coalition Government at Westminster and the Stormont Executive is at stake, but so, too, is the credibility of the trade union leaders who claim this week will see the biggest such protest since the 1930s.

Even if it is, we are entitled to ask: what will it achieve? At best, a further concession or two by the Government on public service pensions.

At worst, the loss of a day's earnings for two million people and enormous disruption for many, many more.

We will not know for 48 hours whether public resentment and anger over the Government's measures is as great as the union leaders' predictions.

Most probably it is, but will the blunt instrument of a strike reap any value? Or will it simply add to the country's woes?

It is quite evident that the UK cannot afford the current or future level of spending on hospitals, schools, the civil service, local government and the whole panoply of public services.

Do we really want to borrow more billions to pay for it? Do we really want to pay more taxes?

We get the public services for which we are prepared to pay. If they are inadequate, underfunded and not to our liking, we should contribute more. If truth were to be told, we don't wish to do so.

For instance, in Northern Ireland we have other priorities. We prefer to have no water charges, our household rates capped and free prescriptions. Thousands don't appear to mind not turning up for hospital or doctors' appointments every year.

The public complains about the closure of schools and hospital departments, but is unwilling to make any additional financial contribution to preserve existing services.

The best that can be said for Wednesday is that it will act as an escape-valve. For many, it will be an opportunity to show their displeasure over income and pensions.

Others, however, appear to have a wider agenda; attacking the authority of the Government in London and the Assembly at Stormont.

I heard one local union leader suggest last week that this was the UK's equivalent of the Arab Spring protests. Really? If I were a potential striker and I thought for one moment that my action was being interpreted as such, I think I would stay at work.

The Irish did it (above). The Greeks did it. Last week the Portuguese did it. Now it's our turn.

Beyond letting off steam, have the days of action - or rather inaction - in other European countries made any appreciable difference to people's livelihoods? I doubt it.

It remains to be seen how many members of the UK's big unions participate. The fact that only a third of union members bothered to vote does not suggest overwhelming support and raises the prospect of a bitter and divisive atmosphere at the picket lines.

What of the rest of our society - the people who do not work in the public sector? Many have seen their jobs axed in the recession, their wages and salaries frozen or reduced, their pension investments ravaged and their futures left full of uncertainty.

Hardly a day passes without another high-profile casualty. Ireland, north and south, is strewn with untold stories of lost livelihoods and businesses gone bust.

No end appears in sight as economic growth slows everywhere. The very fabric of Europe is frayed - if not in tatters. The backcloth to Wednesday's strike could hardly be darker. The timing could not be worse.

No matter how justified the anger and frustration of our public servants, stopping work and causing widespread disruption is no answer in a society feeling so much pain already.

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