17 July 1997 Edition
Workers in struggle
New broom has yet to clean up
Harney and O'Rourke have toughest cabinet postings
New faces, new titles for old problems but has anything changed in Dublin's Merrion Buildings as a new administration comes to grips for what passes as political power in the 26 Counties? So far - except for a new coat of gloss as the new government renames troublesome departments - it would appear that nothing much has changed.
The new Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat cabinet is moving into its first month of Government, with some bad cases of opening night jitters, particularly for two of the three new women Cabinet members.
Mary Harney's cabinet posting to the Department of Enterprise, Employment and Trade (a new addition) is one the most difficult in government. Already she has had to contend with less than impressive unemployment figures and three factory closures.
Mary O'Rourke has the most difficult cabinet posting as minister for the renamed Department of Public Enterprise. It is the ministry that helped sink Lowry, and even Dukes left his short tenure in the hot seat with his ears burning as the deflector issue remained clearly unresolved.
Formerly titled the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications, it should perhaps be renamed the ministry of privatisation as most of its core elements, the ESB, Telecom, An Post, RTE and CIE are due to come under either the auctioneer's hammer or to have to operate alongside foreign competitors. It is unclear whether O'Rourke's approach will differ from that of her predecessors.
These are not the only departments to be renamed. Marine is now known as ``Natural Resources'' while Social Welfare is to be called ``Social, Community and Family Affairs''.
Mary Harney was only a week into work when the first wave hit home. June's unemployment figures for the 26 Counties showed an increase of 6,749 to 254,673. ``An aberration,'' said new minister Dermot Ahern. Aberration or not, the figures must have concentrated Harney's mind for she in reality is the minister for Job Creation and the the temporary increase in the jobless figures showed just how explodable the hype over the Celtic Tiger economy actually is.
Many of these new welfare claimants are teachers and other occupations who only have seasonal work and are effectively being exploited by their employers who don't have to offer full-time contracts. In the case of the teachers, many are in reality government employees as it is the Department of Education who pays the schools to hire them, and must know that they are getting these workers cheap. So it shouldn't be such a surprise in the Summer and in December when they sign on en masse.
The second wave of problems to hit Harney came in the form of threatened closures at three separate factories The first was at Asahi synthetic fibre manufacturing plant in Mayo. Its 320 workers rejected a new set of pay terms and working conditions offered by senior management who were buying the company from its Japanese parent company. The workers had been told that rejection of the wage cuts could mean closure of the plant.
A very similar situation emerged in the Farah clothing plant also in Mayo, this time Kiltimagh. Here again was a dispute over wage cuts and changes in working conditions between 160 workers and their managers who were attempting to buy out their American owners.
The reaction to the prospect of two plant closures in Mayo was considerably different to the news that 91 workers at Shamrock Apparel in Coolock were to lose their jobs.
The prospect of job losses in North Mayo prompted Enterprise and Employment minister Mary Harney to launch an enterprise initiative.
The initiative's role is to explore options to secure not only the Asahi plant but to market North Mayo as an investment location while also setting up training courses for the workers. The closure at Asahi is due in six months time. The closure at Shamrock is due on 25 July, yet there is as of yet no task force for the workers there.
Dublin North East representative Larry O'Toole told An Phoblacht that while he welcomed the announcement of the task force for North Mayo he felt that Coolock, a disaster area in terms of unemployment, deserved the same level of Government concern.
He called on the Mary Harney to ``authorise Forbairt to take over this factory and retain the workers until alternative employment is found''.
It is unclear what course of action Harney will take. For now it seems as though nothing has really changed. It is a case of new government, same policies.
O Caoláin votes against local government funding climbdown
Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin voted last week against proposals by 26-County Environment minister Noel Dempsey to backtrack on commitments given by the Rainbow Coaltion to finally take the first steps towards reforming the financing of local government.
``The position of the new administration is, in our view, a reaffirmation of existing central government control with vague promises to widen and deepen local government. Vague promies are not a substitute for firm action.''
The Rainbow Coalition had promised to allow local authorities to retain motor tax revenue and use this as a substitute for the inequitable levying of service charges. Now Dempsey has proposed to retract this proposal without making the alternatives clear.
In a statement to An Phoblacht O Caolain said, ``The proposals brought forward by the previous administration were far from perfect. However, our interpretation was that it finally recognised the failures of the present system''.
``Reform of local government where the objective is a vibrant, self financing, representative powerful system of local government is one of the core objectives of Sinn Féin,'' said O Caolain.