Friday 21 October 2016

Peace in election time, but at what cost to the public purse?

Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin insisted the measures would 'secure a peaceful industrial relations environment until September 2018' – or past the election
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin insisted the measures would 'secure a peaceful industrial relations environment until September 2018' – or past the election

Before the sponsors made us call it something else, agreements on Lansdowne Road usually involved match tickets.

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Now this son of Haddington Road, itself began in very tough times by Croke Park, becomes the new bible for public sector peace.

And, in an election year, the governing parties are prepared to pay a big price for functioning industrial relations in the 300,000-strong public sector. You cannot hope to win a general election if, for example, the fire brigade, the bin collectors, or the police are threatening to take to the barricades.

First impressions are that it looks like a good deal if you work in the public sector. And it must be said these workers, many of whom are on modest enough money, deserve a break.

They were whacked by at least two pay cuts, and various levies, since they last actually got a pay rise back in 2008. Most of them can now look forward to a pay boost of €2,000 in phases between January 2016 and September 2017. The deal involves a cut in the public service pension levy and a partial reversal of pay cuts which kicked in back in 2010.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said the deal would cost taxpayers €566m over three years. But he insisted the measures were affordable and notably would "secure a peaceful industrial relations environment until September 2018" - or past the election.

Government officials were keen to stress that these were a rolling back of pay cuts - not pay rises. But there are a number of hurdles to be cleared.

First, is that the public service union leaders who did this deal must sell it to their members. Let's recall that all around Easter there was a slew of union conferences at which members talked about "pay restoration" - and they denounced the prospect of conceding productivity or changed work practices to regain what they saw as legitimate income lost.

So the union leaders can sell the deal they have done, there must not be too much stress on the terms and conditions from the government side. Watch for a distinct softening of the more strident "reform calls" previously made by Health Minister Leo Varadkar, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, and Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe.

There will be a falling back on the "old codes" which will refer to ongoing reviews, big reform plans, and leaving of the details to local management. It used to do the trick in times past and should work again to get things over the line.

The prospect of ongoing public service industrial peace carries benefits for both Fine Gael and Labour in government. Labour will also seek to retain at least some of the lower-paid public service workers who opted for them ahead of Fianna Fáil last time.

That will be a hard sell for Joan Burton & Co. But hope springs eternal.

The real question for both governing parties is stating benefits for the 1.6 million private sector workers. They also are weary after seven lean years.

Irish Independent

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