Thursday 19 October 2017

And now for the hard part: how to fund the public pay bill

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Finance Minister Michael Noonan Photo: Tony Gavin
Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Finance Minister Michael Noonan Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

'Pass the Parcel' is a nasty game best avoided in politics, as in most other walks of life.

But it is what Enda Kenny and his ministers will be playing today when they sit down for their most contentious Cabinet meeting since they took office on May 6.

The nearest thing the ministers have to good news is that the gardaí may have been 'bought off' - assuming they vote to endorse the generous five-to-midnight deal which averted a first ever strike.

Against that, the bulk of secondary schools are closed indefinitely from yesterday. On the plus side, the Coalition can bank on a very shallow pool of public sympathy for Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, which, in contrast to the two other teacher organisations, is the union which has gravest difficulty in cutting a deal. But Enda Kenny and Co know the unpopularity of secondary teachers will not assuage parents' frustration for too long, especially those with children facing state examinations.

And, in the meantime, there is the little detail of how to fund the generous concessions on pay given to gardaí. The extra pay comes with a €40m price tag and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe has made it clear the money is going to have to be found from the existing budget plans for 2017.

Many other ministers have loudly declaimed that they will not be conceding cuts in their spending plans. Most of the fingers are pointing in the direction of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. The fairest approach here might be to squeeze the Garda Síochana's own budget.

But since ratification of the deal cannot be taken for granted, that option should not be shouted about too loudly in and around the gossipy precincts of Leinster House. There could be further threats of disorder on the streets, chaos at airports and a spate of crime by fearless criminals before very long.

Equally, this shaky hybrid minority Coalition, which is functioning by the grace of Fianna Fáil, needs to cling to the stretched assertion that what has been conceded to the Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors remains within the terms of Lansdowne Road.

The one phrase we all retained from the brinkmanship of recent weeks was Mr Donohoe's mantra that "Lansdowne Road is the only game in town". Now the time has come to add the words "but not for long" - and "certainly not until September 2018".

Meanwhile, it is now more likely that assumptions about threats from "restive Independents" and/or "Fianna Fáil Machiavellianism" could have been misplaced. The pay demands of 280,000 other public servants may threaten far more potently the stability of the Government.

Irish Independent

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