Sunday 4 December 2016

O'Connor's claims of a pot of gold are akin to Sinn Féin-style politics

Published 16/11/2016 | 02:30

The Government has called Siptu leader Jack O’Connor’s bluff over his threats on public sector pay restoration talks. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Government has called Siptu leader Jack O’Connor’s bluff over his threats on public sector pay restoration talks. Photo: Tony Gavin

Following months of upheaval surrounding pay and conditions in the public sector, the Government has finally decided to adopt a tough approach to trade unions and their unreasonable demands.

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Despite suggestions over the weekend that an announcement of fresh talks aimed at succeeding the Lansdowne Road Agreement was imminent, ministers emerged from yesterday's Cabinet meeting showing a united front. There would be no dancing to the tune of trade union leaders such as Jack O'Connor.

In fact, ministers have barely batted an eyelid since the Siptu leader issued his ultimatum that an invitation for talks must be issued or industrial unrest is on the cards in the New Year.

Privately, ministers have expressed the strong view that by calling Mr O'Connor's bluff, it is he - and not the Government - that appears weakened.

"We won't be bullied by one union leader who seems to think he can call the shots," said one minister.

The Government reaffirmed its stance that the only way of preventing a "free for all" of pay claims is to deal with the apex body of the trade union movement, ICTU.

Government sources say this "collective approach" is far less likely to result in individual unions going on "solo runs" in the search for the type of side deals secured by the Garda Representative Association (GRA).

Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that some acceleration in talks will have to be agreed to in the coming weeks. From the Government's perspective, the resources necessary to achieve greater pay restoration cannot be found before next October's Budget.

As this political game of chess continues, the focus is now on Mr O'Connor's next move when, as expected, tomorrow's deadline passes without a government intervention.

Will Mr O'Connor do as he has threatened - and set the ball rolling on widespread industrial action within the Siptu umbrella group?

Will he authorise his union organisers to ballot for potential strike action - in a move that could see workers down tools in sectors from healthcare to education to local government?

After issuing the threat so publicly, the senior union figure appears to have little choice.

But the fact that very few other leaders in the union movement came out to publicly endorse his set of conditions speaks volumes about Mr O'Connor's own authority.

It is incumbent on him, as a well-paid and highly experienced trade unionist, to provide greater clarity as to where exactly he believes the Government will find this pot of gold that apparently exists. His arguments to date - tackle tax evasion and increase the 9pc Vat rate levied on the hospitality sector - do not stack up. They are populist, under-researched and poorly thought-out proposals that one could easily associate with the likes of Sinn Féin.

Within Fianna Fáil, many TDs share the same view as their Fine Gael colleagues about the need for a hard-line approach towards public sector unions. At yesterday's meeting of the party's frontbench, Micheál Martin told his TDs to listen back to the interview he gave to RTÉ broadcaster Seán O'Rourke on Monday.

Mr Martin warned against going down a dangerous path that could lead to the signing of a new pay deal the taxpayer cannot afford.

Of course, Fine Gael ministers are cognisant that, similar to water charges, Mr Martin could change his position on public sector pay at any time.

One minister remarked that while Mr Martin appears to be playing the "responsible opposition card", he is privately hoping that the Government will implode.

Irish Independent

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