The Irish Congress of trade unions has heard a call for pay increases in excess of the rate of inflation.

Delegates at the biennial conference in Ennis backed a motion to pursue a policy of wage led growth in the economy to stimulate demand.

Proposing the motion, General Secretary of the Public Service Executive Union Tom Geraghty said you could not remove €28bn from the economy without consequences.

He noted that even as the country emerged from recession, an estimated 25% of the workforce were either unemployed or underemployed, public services had been decimated and another generation had been lost to emigration.

He said it was a tragedy that as a society Ireland seemed to be determined to rush headlong back to the same policies that got us into the mess in the first place.

Mr Geraghty said there was an alternative in the Nordic model which relied on reasonably high taxes to fund public services.

He said there was eminent scope at this point in the economic cycle to get back to pay increases that exceed the rate or inflation - and are equal to the rate of growth estimated to average 3-4% for the next few years, as part of a wage led growth strategy.

Mr Geraghty said the target should be to take the quarter of a million people earning less than the living wage of €11.45 per-hour out of a cycle of endless poverty.

He claimed wage led growth could be done without harming competitiveness.

Earlier, the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions described the anti-water charges movement as the biggest mass social mobilisation since the foundation of the State.

John Douglas acknowledged that the Right2Water campaign does not have universal support within the trade union movement.

However, he said the extensive concessions secured by it would be enjoyed by all trade unionists.

He said that if members of the trade union movement had been totally absent from the anti-water charges movement, it would have severely damaged its credibility.

As an election year loomed, he said, trade unionists had to grasp the nettle of political power within their membership bases.

He said no union could profess to be non-political, and their vision could never be achieved by industrial agitation alone.

They needed to campaign for a mass mobilisation akin to what they had witnessed during the same-sex marriage referendum, he said, to secure the political ground to deliver the social and industrial agenda.

He also said trade unions were not interested in a social dialogue which confined or constrained the legitimate role of their members.

The trade union movement, he said, had rediscovered its activism and shaken off the shackles of top down centralised bargaining.

He said it was cutting the teeth of a whole new generation of trade union and community activists in struggles such as Greyhound, the Paris Bakery, Rhatigans, Clerys, Vita Cortex and Dunnes Stores.

He cited a number of victories for the trade union movement, including the restoration of the sectoral wage setting arrangements, though he called for stronger legislation to ensure that employers could not obstruct their implementation.

He described new legislation on collective bargaining as far from perfect, but a foundation on which to build further.

He referred to Northern Ireland as the most deprived region in the UK. The welfare cuts and the 20,000 public sector job losses sought by the Tory government would plunge Northern Ireland into the dark ages if not challenged, he said.

The British and Irish governments needed to recognise Northern Ireland as a region emerging from conflict, where austerity policy were doubly damaging, he added.

Mr Douglas called for lifting of the debt burden in Greece and delegates stood and applauded in solidarity with the Greek people.

He called for a European debt conference to consider the issue of debt restructuring from the social perspective of the peoples of Europe, rather than solely from the financial institutions of Europe and the ideologues of austerity.

He also urged trade unionists to campaign against international free trade agreements.