Monday 26 June 2017

Inside the talks: how officers agonised over the most crucial ballot in the history of the force

On duty: A Garda on duty outside the Dáil on Kildare Street yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
On duty: A Garda on duty outside the Dáil on Kildare Street yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

In a well-known hostelry on Dublin's Northside, several members of the GRA Central Executive Committee (CEC) discuss, over a few pints, the magnitude of what they are about to do.

It's Wednesday night and less than 36 hours before the most significant strike in the history of the State is due to begin.

Some of those present have endured sleepless nights, others have held lengthy conversations with their loved-ones about the prospect of being docked pay.

Above all, each and every one of the gardaí present have agonised over whether their actions would result in members of the public being harmed.

They have wrestled with the prospect of crimes taking place that may be avoided if the strike is called off. But among the many sub-plots that are discussed, one causes particular anger.

Read more: Trade unions demand Lansdowne Road Agreement review following garda pay deal

The gardaí present speak of the various text messages they have received from probationary officers, the newest, youngest and most inexperienced members of the force.

These individuals had earlier received their pay slips - which stated they owed hundreds of euro back to the State that was paid in error.

This treatment of the force's young officers encouraged many of the gardaí present that they needed to stand together.

They went their separate ways, in agreement that they would remain resolute.

Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Arthur Carron
Nóirín O'Sullivan Photo: Arthur Carron

There was a consensus that the strike must go ahead.

While the Wednesday night gathering was taking place, the union's officer board - led by its president Ciarán O'Neill and general secretary Pat Ennis - were having a different type of conversation entirely.

They were preparing for a meeting at Garda Headquarters the following morning aimed at averting Friday's day of action.

The meeting itself had not been flagged with the wider executive, the reasons for which are unknown.

This marked the beginning of a chasm within the leadership of the GRA that would only grow further as the hours went by.

Read more: Unions ramp up pressure to reverse wage cuts after gardai secure pay rise

In Garda HQ, the GRA officer board sit down for their showdown talks.

Well-placed sources they were told in "no uncertain terms" about the prospect of public order being seriously breached.

Deputy Garda Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin and Assistant Commissioner Eugene Corcoran - who was placed in charge of the contingency plans - urged a resolution.

They emphasised the dire need to avoid any course of action that could encourage organised crime.

The prospect of foreign ambassadors being targeted was also mentioned.

But above all, the senior gardaí did not want the meeting to end without securing one highly significant commitment from the GRA: a derogation.

According to sources, such a proposal had been tabled on three occasions in recent weeks - and rejected each time.

But with the strike now just hours away, the union leadership consented to the demands of Garda management.

A total of 18 specialist units would be exempt from the strike action, meaning the State would avoid an emergency situation and be sufficiently policed.

The move was a game changer.

Read more: Garda Strike Off - What do the dramatic events of Thursday night mean? 

It stunned the wider GRA executive who insisted they did not mandate the officer board to agree to such a derogation.

The announcement of the extra cover was made at a media event at 12.30pm.

Immediately, members of the executive sent text messages to each other, furious that they had been "hoodwinked" by an officer board embarking on a "solo run".

Nonetheless, the Labour Court had yet to finalise its set of recommendations that had the ability to resolve this dispute altogether.

While the GRA executive held a further meeting at its Phibsboro headquarters, Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald attended the Newsbrand journalism awards in the Mansion House.

Publicly, she spoke about how quality journalism is vital in order to shine a light on "what is happening on our streets".

Privately, she was wondering if these same streets would be places of darkness in just a few hours time.

As the afternoon progressed, Ms Fitzgerald was in regular contact with Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, who was in his department considering the implications a Labour Court ruling could have on public sector pay policy.

Read more: Gardai lift strike threat after last-ditch talks

Just a short drive away on Haddington Road, the Labour Court's chairman Kevin Foley and his team were preparing to invite back in the officer board to consider the most important set of proposals that will be issued in years.

These would include the introduction of a €15 payment for each day of annual leave, improvements in the rent allowance for new recruits, and the fast-tracking of parade money for the 15 minutes worked prior to the start of each shift.

The package - which is estimated to cost up to €50m - went well beyond what the Government said it was prepared to offer.

The proposals were emailed to the wider GRA executive at 5.45pm. Three hours later - and back at Garda HQ - Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan was preparing to brief members of the media. There would be gardaí in every district of the country, she insisted, adding that communities needed to work together.

But as the 11th hour neared, the 27 member GRA executive were preparing for the most important ballot they will ever cast. Tensions were rife within the room, emotions were running high.

Nerves increased at 10.15pm when word arrived that their colleagues in the AGSI had withdrawn their own strike threat. The GRA was now on its own.

The options facing the union were threefold: Suspend, defer or proceed with the strike.

With some members having two votes depending on the size of their district, the result was declared: 20-17 in favour of deferral.Some of those who voted are believed to have changed their minds just minutes before.

At around 11.20pm, word of the decision was communicated via text message to Government figures, Garda management and journalists.

Read more: Threat of strike became a divisive issue within force

The two people at the centre of the storm - Nóirín O'Sullivan and Frances Fitzgerald - breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the news was met with both shock and confusion among many gardaí.

It is now over to them to decide whether to sign on the dotted line - bringing this bitter dispute to an end.

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