Government is in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' trap over stand-off with gardaí on pay
Published 19/10/2016 | 02:30
The current Garda pay dispute is shaping up into a scenario that may well produce no winner and lots of losers. It sees the Garda Representative Association (GRA) serving notice of a "unilateral withdrawal of services" on November 4, 11, 18 and 25 - and might well be described as the product of prudence, impatience, trickery, and 'too little, too late'.
Much media focus in this dispute has been on whether gardaí have the right to take industrial action. This is irrelevant and does little to help resolve the dispute.
For clarity on the matter, under the Garda Síochána Act 2005, officials of the Garda associations are liable to prosecution for inducing their members to withhold services, while Garda Regulations 2007 enable sanctions in respect of gardaí disobeying orders.
However, the fundamental problem with such provisions is that it is difficult - and would be counterproductive - to enforce them. For example, if all efforts fail and thousands of gardaí withdraw their labour in November, who exactly is going to arrest them and where would they be detained?
Indeed, even the deployment of more measured sanctions, such as dismissal, would likely harden Garda resolve, as former Taoiseach Charles Haughey discovered in 1961, when, as Justice Minister, he was obliged to reinstate 11 gardaí dismissed for their involvement in the 'Macushla' pay dispute.
While the Government is understandably trying to 'hold the line' on public-sector pay, it is not entirely blameless. For example, as part of the 2013 Haddington Road pay deal, it agreed to an independent review for gardaí, to be completed by mid-2014. Alas, the appointed reviewer resigned last May "for personal reasons", prompting speculation the scale of the GRA's demands and the government's flexibility weren't overlapping. This matter has now been passed to former Labour Court chairman John Horgan. However, initial Garda optimism of repeat performances of the Conroy Commission and Ryan Report (in 1970 and 1979, respectively, giving gardaí 9pc and 18pc pay rises) has long evaporated.
Indeed, the resurrection of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors' (AGSI) militancy - after they appeared to be safely tucked into the Lansdowne Road deal last August - is attributed to a similar sleight of hand, as alleged assurances on the promised Public Service Pay Commission also evaporated.
Many argue that trust in the Garda will be irreparably damaged by this dispute - despite successive national MRBI polls ranking gardaí as the most trusted role model/institution in the State - ahead of doctors, judiciary, charities, unions, the President, the Church, religious and business leaders, the media and the Government.
There can be no doubt that, in recent years, gardaí have endured a torrid time. This can be attributed to reduced remuneration, resources and promotions prospects, increased work demands and the daily risk of injury or death. The swarm of inquiries has also served to hammer Garda morale.
Of course, it should also be recognised that both parties to this dispute have shown a will to work toward solutions. For example, at the end of last month, the leadership of the GRA reached a (relatively) good deal with their official counterparts - one that most other public sector workers (who have already accepted the Lansdowne Road deal) would have jumped at.
In this self-same deal, civil service negotiators displayed considerable creativity, with a package promising a pension perk (estimated to be worth €8,000), the neutralising of the controversial 30 hours' free overtime, rent allowance restoration, increased promotions, etc. Make no mistake about it - this is a risky package for Government to peddle. Most other groups would take your hand off to secure equivalent provisions.
With mounting pressure to accelerate pay restoration, the Government finds itself in an unenviable 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' position. The dreaded 'knock-on' effect of concessions - to 300,000 other public servants - is at the heart of the Government's reluctance to put more money on the table. Indeed, many are conscious this effect played its part in the eventual discrediting of the 20-year social partnership arrangement.
And while the resolution of the Luas and Dublin Bus disputes was a welcome boon for Government, the provisions enabling breakthroughs are probably well in excess of what would be required to keep gardaí on duty. Furthermore, pay demands are unlikely to be assuaged by reports of good Exchequer returns and economic growth.
Nor should it be overlooked that while the aforementioned disputes were settled by pay increases, gardaí argue they're looking only for pay restoration.
Beyond the difficulty facing the GRA in winning the 'we're unique' argument, a more disconcerting feature of their campaign is the lack of support for it among mainstream political parties.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will have noted the mileage garnered by British Prime Minister Theresa May when successfully campaigning for party leadership, as she boasted about bringing the GRA's British counterparts - the Police Federation - to heel.
It is in the interests of all parties to resolve this dispute with immediate effect. Failure to do so will prove costly for affected parties - including the vulnerable public.
Now is the time for creativity, conciliation and compromise to replace threats, counter-threats and hardline positions.
Dr Gerard McMahon is a lecturer/ consultant at the College of Business, DIT, and co-author of the book 'Industrial Relations in Ireland', 4th Edition