Friday 26 December 2014

Eamon Delaney: It's time for bus chief to return from Dubai and hammer out a peace deal

Published 14/05/2013 | 17:00

DC 13/05/2013
Striking bus drivers pictured preventing the GoBe service from leaving Merchants Quay in Cork city for Dublin airport yesterday as the second day of strikes by Bus Eireann workers began.  
Pic: Diane Cusack
Bus Eireann workers picket while the company’s chairman is in Dubai

WHERE'S the chairman? The bus strike is causing misery to thousands of commuters, and endangering the actual existence of Bus Eireann, and yet the chairman of the semi-state company, Paul Mallee, remains 7,000km away in Dubai, in the baking heat of the Arabian Gulf. Would it happen with a private company?

On Thursday, this newspaper revealed the whereabouts of Mr Mallee but there is still no sign of him rushing home. He was appointed chair of Bus Eireann two years ago, but soon after got a second job with Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. After which, he transferred to another job in Dubai. Meanwhile, he was chairman of our national bus company – at a remove, let us say.

In fairness, since July 2011 Mr Mallee has flown back to attend almost all of the 18 board meetings, and participated in the other one by video. But one might have expected him to return home with the onset of this crippling strike.

With his considerable skill and experience, surely he could have offered some 'on the spot' expertise and continuous focus to try to resolve the dispute. It's hard to do that by video conference.

And the dispute may not be so impossible to resolve.

After a discussion on Pat Kenny's radio show yesterday, between Bus Eireann spokesman Andrew McLindon and Michael Faherty, General Secretary of the NBRU, it seemed that there was enough agreement for Kenny to suggest at the close that the two sides go off and discuss the deadlock. It doesn't matter who calls who first, he quipped.

As it is, there is a danger here that the spectacle of strike action, whether effective or not, could open the way to similar such industrial action elsewhere, setting a disastrous example as we try to close off on the Croke Park II.

We could soon be back to the dark days of the strike-infested Ireland, with no overall social partnership arrangement to keep the different unions, and management, in check. Say what you like about social partnership, it brought industrial relations under a national umbrella and gave us industrial and social peace. At least, the LRC is on the case.

If Paul Mallee was living here, he would also have been able to witness how his company operates, day to day, on the streets. Bus Eireann does fantastic work, shifting great numbers of passengers through our major towns and through the rest of the countryside, especially to isolated areas where a more commercial service wouldn't operate.

But while things have improved, it is still not properly managed in the modern commercial sense. And very often the customer comes last, as many passengers who have tried to follow up on a query or lodge a complaint have discovered.

As it is, private competition has transformed the service and shown up the poor value and inefficiency of the old monopoly. Take, for example, the cross-country service.

For years, I took the Bus Eireann to Galway – expensive, slow, no extras and the driver was king. (The train, by the way, was worse: even more expensive and with Eastern Bloc-type service).

But with competition, from Nestor's and Citylink and others, the variety of bus service was transformed – clean, modern coaches, running around the clock, not every five hours, and, crucially, for only a fraction of the fare.

And there was often video and a friendly, co-operative driver.

Competition works – and everybody benefits. Except those who think that they should retain the same overtime pay and conditions in a loss-making semi-state company. It's just not sustainable, and it's not fair for taxpayers to have to subsidise this.

Granted, the company could have started at the top, in cutting salaries and benefits, but times have changed and the drivers will have to accept the sacrifices.

After all, they are not losing their jobs, or having their core pay reduced. This is what would have happened in the private sector, where proper market standards apply.

Irish Independent

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