Belfast Telegraph

A Croke Park replay is only chance to win

By Brendan Keenan

A door never closes, but another opens, they say. Could that be what they mean when they talk of re-opening the Croke Park agreement between the Irish government and the public sector unions?

Doors are certainly slamming shut all over the place. The prospects for growth next year have dimmed to the point of vanishing. As emergency stimulus packages run out — especially in the USA — it becomes clear that major economies are still not ready to generate self-sustaining growth.

That is the problem with stimulus packages — you have to be prepared to keep stimulating until the recovery comes. There are plenty of economists and business leaders who make a convincing case that this is what should be done. But governments tend to lose their nerve about all that borrowing. That was certainly the case in Britain, where David Cameron apparently feared that the debt markets could suddenly turn on the UK, as they have on Ireland.

The Americans have more firepower, because lenders have to have dollars — the world's reserve currency. But President Obama is accused of being too cautious in using this advantage. Whatever the causes, Ireland, somehow, must try to live with the consequences of another poor year of growth. There is a reason why markets and others measure debt and deficits, not in cash, but a percentage of the economy's output. The Republic’s €20bn gap between government revenue and government spending would mean little in Britain — at about 2% of output (GDP) — but means everything at 12% of Irish GDP.

Two forecasts last week predicted only modest growth in 2011. One of the forecasters, Brian Devine in NCB Stockbrokers, wisely pointed out that this is not a good time to be a forecaster. Essentially, they work on a model of the economy. When an economy has been wrenched apart as this one has, the model may no longer be accurate.

So the latest forecasts might be too pessimistic. Equally, they might be too optimistic. It is on this rock that the Government's €15bn budget correction looks like foundering, even before it is properly launched. The door to the financial markets appeared to slam shut on Thursday, when lenders to the Government demanded 7% for 10-year money. The Government is not borrowing at the moment, so that makes no difference. But it will have to resume borrowing early next year. Even after recovery, the economy will not generate 7% a year to cover such a cost.

It may become necessary to seek cheaper loans from the new EU rescue fund and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Helpfully, the man in charge of the EU fund, Klaus Regling said last week that the going rate would be 5%.

He also expected that no one, apart from Greece, would need the funds but, unless he knows something the rest of us don't, it is hard to see at present how his expectation can be met.

This is where the door of the Croke Park agreement creaks open, like the entrance to some malevolent castle. The agreement protects the public service from pay cuts in return for reform of working practice.

I took the view that something like the agreement was necessary, because neither the public services nor the public finances would survive a continuation of existing structures and behaviour. All the cuts to date were designed merely to hold day-to-day public spending at €55bn a year, while the economy grew and reduced the deficit. But the economy is not growing, and seems unlikely to do anything much over the next two years. It is not at all clear, then, that the €55bn figure can be maintained. The appalling vista of a cut in actual spending looms. The public sector (managers, staff and unions) had a brief window to deliver reductions in numbers, redeployment and better services at lower cost in the way they thought best.

Instead, we got the old inertia, feather-bedding, bureaucratic fiddling and primeval industrial relations practices. There will be mighty laments as the axe falls, but the biggest victims will be those who need good public services, and are going to get worse ones.

Belfast Telegraph