The last time that the Fire Brigades Union called a national strike was in the winter of 1977; after two months it won a 10 per cent pay increase and a new pay formula which has lasted until now. Twelve months later the infamous Winter of Discontent began which led to the downfall of James Callaghan's Labour government and the beginning of eighteen years of Conservative rule. It would be far–fetched to think that a similar pattern of events will follow the FBU's planned series of short strikes which begin today. On the other hand, this is the first serious challenge which Tony Blair has faced from the trade union movement since he took office and it is likely to be followed during the winter by others from airport staff, air traffic controllers, Magistrates Courts officers, lecturers, teachers and postal staff.

In the international arena the Prime Minister has shown strength and steady nerve in several difficult situations. Will he show the same sure touch in dealing with the impending domestic difficulties? It is essential that he does so from the start. The claims made by the firefighters are unreal and they have shown a marked disinclination to discuss those changes in working practices which must be a quid pro quo for any wage settlement in excess of the rate of inflation in the public services. Although the government is not directly involved in the FBU negotiations it must make absolutely clear that any over–generous settlement will not be funded from the public purse.

Monitor

The last ditch

It is an unlikely scenario – that after 28 years without agreement the Greek and Turkish Cyriots will shake hands over the negotiating table within the next month. Yet if this does not happen the anticipated accession of Cyprus to the European Union will not take place and the prospects of Turkey becoming a member in the future will be even less favourable than they are anyway.

The government of the whole of Cyprus is still legally the administration in the Greek section because the Turkish invasion in 1974 has never been recognised internationally. The situation as of today is that if Cyprus is offered EU membership without a prior agreement with the Turkish section, Turkey says it will annex the north of the island where its citizens live; if the EU excludes Cyprus from membership, which has already been agreed in principle, Greece says it will block the planned expansion of the EU to include ten new members, most of them from eastern Europe.

The UN is trying to find a compromise which will make it possible for Cyprus's EU membership to go ahead without any of these unwanted consequences. Three options are on the table, each involving a unified state in which the presidential and governmental powers are revolved between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The models drawn on by the UN are Belgium and Switzerland. Agreement is necessary because the EU meets in Copenhagen in early December to finalise the list of new members.

Ray Fleming

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