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21 September 2000 Edition

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A week of upheaval

BY MICHAEL PIERSE

Politics moved decisively out of the silly season this week, with both the British and Dublin governments facing a barrage of criticism and protest.

Overshadowed by the mass upheaval in Britain over fuel charges, the British government's policing bill has been drawing fire from both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, who warn that nationalist and republican discontent is growing.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams this week spoke of the potential implications of the ``disastrous'' British approach to policing on the peace process. ``Failure to produce a civic policing service acceptable to nationalists and republicans will seriously subvert confidence in the integrity and credibility of the peace process,'' he told a weekend conference in Dublin.

Adams said the ball is now firmly in Britain's court and that ``the political manoeverings on this issue have seriously damaged nationalist confidence in the British government.

``Regrettably, the British government has turned the policing issue into a battleground. It didn't need to be like this. One logical outcome of the peace process, if it is to be successful, must be a policing service which republicans can join.''

The SDLP's Séamus Mallon was surprisingly staunch in his criticisms of the same bill. The issues of names, flags and emblems, on which unionism has mainly bogged down, Mallon described as ``the yardsticks against which ordinary young nationalists considering a career in the police will measure the sincerity of police reform.

``These recommendations on symbols also flow directly from the Agreement's guarantee of giving just and equal treatment to the sense of identity and aspiration of both the nationalist and unionist communities.''

If this was a sign of the growing support for republicanism in Ireland, a report in Wednesday's Evening Herald was proof positive. The Dublin daily newspaper concluded, from a poll jointly commissioned with the IMS, that Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams now commands the support of 57% of the electorate in the 26 Counties, the highest showing for any party leader, while Sinn Féin also had a strong performance. The poll found that it is now the most popular party among 18 to 21-year-olds and skilled workers.

The Herald's front page ran with the headline `We don't trust you Bertie', indicating the same poll's finding that 56% of the 26-County electorate do not believe the Taoiseach was honest in his statements to the Moriarty Tribunal and the Dáil regarding political donations.

A full 57% of the electorate want Finance minister Charlie McCreevy to resign, according to the Herald survey, a figure the minister will be hoping to influence with bullish indications that he will dish out substantial tax breaks in the December budget, despite the advice of the ESRI and `government advisers'. The Dublin administration needs such damage limitation exercises to try to cope with the negative fallout from the Flaherty affair.

Increasing union agitation, however, will pose a new threat to the coalition's stability. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) on Wednesday formally decided to object to the pay rises laid down by the government in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF). The ICTU accepted SIPTU recommendations for a pay claim of 5%, additional to the PPF's provisions.

ESB white-collar workers will most probably be the first public company employees to challenge the PPF measures through strike action. The ESB Officials Association have served strike notice to the company, along with with a 16.5% pay claim. The biggest ESB union, the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union, are also considering a substantial pay claim.

Whether the electorate can be bought off by the budget remains to be seen. The government is still insisting that unions adhere to the PPF's miserly pay increases as rising inflation wipes out any gains for workers. Furthermore, tax cuts without basic improvements in transport, health services, education and other public services should be seen for what they are.
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