Saturday 25 October 2014

First test for transport minister as rail strike looms

Published 21/08/2014 | 02:30

Newly appointed Minister for Transport, Paschal Donohoe, has already been landed with a major test in the form of the upcoming rail strike. Photo credit: Gerry Mooney
Newly appointed Minister for Transport, Paschal Donohoe, has already been landed with a major test in the form of the upcoming rail strike. Photo credit: Gerry Mooney

YOU'RE playing senior hurling now Paschal. The GAA analogy, famously used by the late Seamus Brennan when greeting the Green Party negotiating team for coalition talks in 2007, seems particularly appropriate for the new transport minister.

Paschal Donohoe barely had time to get his feet under the cabinet table when he was landed with a rail strike. To continue the sporting metaphors, he has been given the ultimate hospital pass.

The Dublin Central TD is a huge favourite of the Taoiseach. But this is a huge ask for someone only elected to the Dail in 2011.

In other, less straitened times, incoming transport ministers, greeted with such a scenario, have called in management and told them to sort the issue straight away, regardless of the cost.

Donohoe doesn't have that luxury. Iarnrod Eireann has racked up accumulated losses of €147m since the economic crash, despite sharply reducing its operating costs. The annual subvention from the State has been slashed by €75m since 2008. There's no money in Government to throw at the problem. The status quo simply isn't sustainable.

Far from rolling over as some of his predecessors did, Donohoe has been talking so tough he has had to fend off accusations of being anti-union.

Such fighting words will endear him to the Fine Gael faithful. But public opinion may shift once the impact of the industrial action is felt from Sunday.

The fact that the chief executive of Irish Rail, David Franks, won't be returning from holiday until the second day of the strike doesn't help in the PR stakes.

Franks' absence was masterfully dropped like a grenade into the debate by the NBRU's general secretary, Dermot O'Leary, on Newstalk Breakfast yesterday. Straight away the company, and by extension Donohoe, were on the back foot. Franks is entitled to take annual leave and is, no doubt, being kept up to speed on developments. But it simply doesn't look good that's he's away when a strike is happening.

For now, at least, the debate has moved from where the company and the Government want to fight it - the argument that the average salary per Irish Rail employee is higher than in 2008.

But it was the less publicised aspect of O'Leary's comments yesterday that might hold the key to ultimately resolving this dispute.

It was a nuanced, measured performance by the NBRU chief, with none of the angry rhetoric that might have been expected. While he naturally rejected the need for pay cuts, O'Leary repeatedly expressed frustration at the unions' absence from the decision-making process on how railways are funded. The unions, as representatives of the workers, should be "sitting at the table with the likes of the National Transport Authority", the funding arm of government for rail services, he said.

O'Leary's message was clearly more aimed at the Government than the company. Workers were being asked to carry the can for maintaining 2014 service levels with a 1998 subvention and the Government had a "responsibility", he said.

That puts the ball in Donohoe's court. In recent times, ministers have preferred to stay aloof from disputes in semi-state companies, allowing unions and management to sort it out. But, with Irish Rail on the verge of insolvency, management has almost no room for manoeuvre. Donohoe is also restricted in what he can give in terms of increased subvention for Irish Rail. However, he may have scope to offer assurances about a formal input for the unions in how the railways are funded and how that money is used across the service, as well as guarantees about future funding levels.

That on its own will hardly be enough to satisfy unions. But equally will workers be willing to strike long term over pay cuts that for 75pc of them amount to just 1.7pc for 28 months?

It's almost certain, at this point, that Sunday's strike will proceed. But, reading between the union lines, there may be scope for compromise after that. And Paschal Donohoe may need to be the one driving it. Welcome to senior hurling, minister.


Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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