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Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 23:01 GMT
Prescott fires warning shot
Soldiers practise a fire drill in Belfast
Soldiers fill in for firefighters as tensions rise

The government is turning up the heat on the firefighters.

Its threat to take new legal powers to take control of the fire service and impose a settlement is certainly part of a high risk business, but it is not yet symptomatic of a strategy.

This is, rather, a blow of rage and frustration from the government.

Ministers really thought the pay talks were heading towards a resolution.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
John Prescott: Willing to take on unions
When the Fire Brigades Union walked out there was a sense of extreme outrage among ministers.

They thought that at a time when the country was facing the possibility of going to war and when there was a deal on the table, walking out was just not acceptable behaviour.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is not taking powers to force anyone back to work - he cannot.

He would have to go a great deal farther than he went on Tuesday in order to do that and, of course, as he said himself, he cannot force them back.

Not confrontation

The strike cannot be ended by dictat.

What Mr Prescott is really doing is signalling that, if the firefighters do not go back to the negotiating table very, very quickly, then more draconian measures will follow.

Firefighters' reaction
Striking firefighters
The pickets are under no illusions

From the government's point of view this is not confrontation.

It would be confrontation if they took powers to ban strikes, as the Tory government did with the police force.

It would be confrontation if they did what the Conservatives are now asking, and went as far as taking legal action.

Either of those moves would split the Labour movement apart and would create a real fight with the trade unions.

Where would it end? Possibly with strikers being sent to jail.

Ministers do not want to go down that road if they can possibly help it.

However angry ministers are, they are not that angry.


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22 Nov 02 | UK
22 Nov 02 | England
22 Nov 02 | England
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