Ireland's health minister was pelted with red paint Monday as tempers flared over government plans to slash euro1 billion ($1.4 billion) from the costs of running an overloaded hospital network.
Health cuts are expected to feature prominently when the government unveils a plan later this month designed to slash euro15 billion from annual deficits over the coming four years. Health services already hit by two years of austerity face the further closure of departments and services across this country of 4.5 million.
Health Minister Mary Harney, often the government figure most critical of labor unions' role in driving up health costs, was hit with a paint-filled balloon as she was about to open a new mental health facility in west Dublin. Police charged into a crowd of a few dozen protesters and arrested a woman in her late 20s suspected of throwing it.
Harney took off her paint-spattered coat and performed the opening ceremony, shovel in hand, with red paint streaked down her neck and both arms. Prime Minister Brian Cowen and opposition leaders denounced the attack as undemocratic and undignified.
The protest coincided with Harney's announcement of a euro400 million ($550 million) severance offer targeted at securing early retirements, or resignations, of 5,000 staff from the health service's 28,000-strong payroll.
The plan would mean giving payments averaging euro80,000 ($110,000) each to veteran health workers, chiefly higher-paid administrators and clerical staff aged 50 and over, up to a maximum of two years' pay to quit. They must decide by Nov. 19 and be gone by Dec. 31.
Labor union leaders protested that health workers needed more time to decide, and questioned whether hospital chiefs have any coherent plan for operating hospitals with nearly 20 percent of staff suddenly gone. For more than a decade, Irish hospitals' emergency rooms have suffered from long waits for help and too few beds for those admitted.
"I'd have a huge concern," said Patricia King, vice president of the SIPTU union that represents many hospital staff, as she left a government briefing on the planned layoffs. "They seem to have no plan at all for the 1st of January 2011."
Many government departments are bracing for historic cuts, expected to exceed euro4.5 billion in the 2011 budget alone, as part of a plan to bring Ireland's annual deficits back within 3 percent of GDP by 2014.
The European Union has set that target following Ireland's descent this year into the worst deficit in Europe, with this year's deficit set to reach 32 percent, a post-war European record. Most of this year's deficit is caused by the exceptional costs of bailing out five Irish banks.
The government says the slashing in unavoidable, in part, because foreign lenders view Ireland as the second-riskiest country in Europe after Greece. Those perceived risks are updated by the minute on Ireland's market for state bonds, whose interest rates again climbed to around euro-era records Monday.
Irish 10-year bonds commanded yields of 7.05 percent Monday, just short of the euro-era record of 7.06 percent reached last week. The riskier that Irish bonds are perceived to be, the higher the return demanded by investors to buy them.
The closely watched gap in yields between Irish and German treasuries did break through previous records Monday to reach 4.60 percentage points, a high dating back to the 1999 launch of the euro common currency. Ireland's previous largest spread versus German bonds, the benchmark for safe debt in Europe, was 4.54 percentage points reached in late September.