Jack O'Connor: talks

Unions have held exploratory talks with Labour and Fine Gael in a bid to resurrect some type of national agreement in the event that the two opposition parties form the next government.

While stressing that his union's allegiance remains firmly with the Labour Party, the president of Siptu, Jack O'Connor, who is also on the Labour Party executive, said he has tried to improve relations with Fine Gael.

"We have had reasonable and businesslike discussions with Fine Gael," O'Connor said.

While the public sector unions continue to devise a concerted campaign of action in the New Year against the pay and social welfare cuts in the budget, the unions are also mounting a political campaign against the government with members being told to ensure that Fianna Fáil is not returned to power.

Speaking after the collapse of the public sector pay talks last week, which would have paved the way for a renewed national partnership agreement covering the private sector also, O'Connor said there was now no prospect of a national partnership agreement "with this government".

Dave Begg, general secretary of Ictu, also stressed that the wider trade unions' long-term relationship with Fianna Fáil had come to an end when Taoiseach Brian Cowen, deliberately turned his back on partnership.

"Fianna Fáil has severed its contract with the Irish working people which it has held since 1932," Begg said after finance minister Brian Lenihan delivered what unions described as the most callous budget in the history of the state.

"Believe me partnership ended at 4pm on Friday afternoon," Begg said, referring to the timing of Taoiseach Brian Cowen's announcement that the government would proceed to cut pay.

The unions are now exploring the possibility of resurrecting a different type of national agreement with the opposition. An accommodation with Labour is likely, particularly given most unions' financial support for the party. But addressing the Siptu annual conference earlier this year, party leader Eamon Gilmore stressed that Labour in government would not be a union-led government.

Relations between Fine Gael and the trade union movement have been a bit more restrained in the past. But under John Bruton's coalition government with Labour of 1994 to 1997, the party had no qualms about entering into a partnership agreement with the unions.