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EDITIONS
Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 21:42 GMT
Blair defends fire dispute policy
Tony Blair is greeted by Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain
Tony Blair arrived at the Old Library to a noisy protest
Tony Blair has defended the government's position in the firefighters' strike, prompted by a series of noisy protests and a union-led boycott of a fundraising dinner in Cardiff.

The prime minister said the Labour Party had spent 18 long years in opposition and had learnt some hard lessons.


In the end, it's better to do the right thing even if it's the unpopular thing

Tony Blair

He said Labour had to govern for the whole country and would not flinch from difficult decisions.

His comments came after around 250 striking firefighters heckled him during his visit to south Wales to deliver a speech on his vision for a modern Europe.

In addition to the demonstrations during his arrival and speech, at the Old Library in Cardiff city centre, trade union leaders claimed up to 70 people invited to the Labour Party dinner at the Marriott Hotel boycotted the function.

During his Europe speech, Mr Blair tried to make light of the heckling but speaking at the later event he addressed the issue of the protests more directly.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair was making a keynote speech on Europe

He said: "What we are never going to do as a government is to go back to the days that we left behind us, that scarred us, that left us with 18 years of opposition."

"Part of life in government is to put up with protest, to put up with disagreement - sometimes even from those that you feel should be close to you and supportive of you.

"But in the end, it's better to do the right thing even if it's the unpopular thing, than to do the wrong thing and have the country pay the consequences of it."

Dave Jenkins, secretary of the Wales TUC, said he thought the absence of the invited guests was a sign of the discontent the unions felt over the way the government is handling the strike.

The polite applause Mr Blair received after his keynote speech was in sharp contrast to the din of klaxons and jeers from striking firefighters gathered outside the building in Cardiff's city centre as he arrived.

Firefighters' picket in Wales
Firefighters are sceptical about pay talks

Around 250 striking firefighters from across south Wales, Avon, Gloucestershire and London took part in the noisy protest.

Earlier, around 100 striking south Wales firefighters marched the few hundred yards from Cardiff's central fire station to the city's Marriott Hotel ready for the prime minister's arrival.

As Mr Blair's fleet of vehicles swept up to the hotel entrance, the entourage was met by the deafening sound of klaxons from the firefighters.

The firefighters had previously held a mock funeral procession through the centre of the city - led by an "undertaker" in a Tony Blair mask.

They said the march was for what they say would be the death of the fire service under the modernisation reforms the government wants to introduce.

Boycott

Cardiff firefighter Clive Protheroe said: "We are here to protest against the death of the British fire service as a result of cuts in the guise of modernisation by the government.

"We have come from all over south Wales and will be making our presence felt throughout Mr Blair's stay in Cardiff.

The firefighters, members of the Fire Brigades Union, called on other trade unionists to boycott the evening dinner.

The union claims the Blair administration has been misleading the public about the pay dispute and the way it wants to bring in reforms of the service.

A Labour Party spokesperson put the number of absentees from the dinner at about a dozen.

Firefighters are nearing the end of the current eight-day stoppage in the dispute over their 40% pay claim.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Jim Hancock
Jim Hancock, transport workers union
A striking firefighter
"10,000 jobs cuts is very, very serious - public safety is at risk here - it's important the public should be aware of that."
BBC Radio Wales' Hugh Turnbull
"There was an absolute din of noise to greet him."

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28 Nov 02 | Politics
26 Nov 02 | Politics
20 Nov 02 | Politics
21 Nov 02 | Politics
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