Saturday 17 March 2018

'Pensioners should be first to benefit from any new pay deal' - Howlin

Brendan Howlin details the future of the public sector on his last day in ministerial office

Moving on: Brendan Howlin on his last day in office at the department of Public Expenditure and Reform Photo: David Conachy
Moving on: Brendan Howlin on his last day in office at the department of Public Expenditure and Reform Photo: David Conachy
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Departing Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin is calling for public sector pensioners to be the next group of workers to benefit from pay restoration.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent on his last day in office, Mr Howlin insisted pensioners would have been the next group to receive clawback on pension cuts if he had remained in the Department.

"Let me put this as delicately as I can - their life expectancy or expectation might not have the same depth of horizon as public sector worker so they need their money," he said.

The Wexford TD also believes the public sector should become more focused on performance-related pay - or bonuses.

He said this will encourage civil servants, especially those on higher pay, to reach targets set by their employers.

"Across the public service we have to set ambitious goals, and for those who achieve them and overachieve them there has to be some incentive to do that," he said.

Mr Howlin spent his first three years in the Department of Public Expenditure slashing wages, benefits and allowances of public sector workers.

In the latter half of the Coalition's tenure in office this changed and Mr Howlin was able to restore some of the swingeing pay cuts.

However, as a Labour Party minister who spent years campaigning for workers rights it was never expected to be a position that would win him praise among voters.

Nevertheless, he defied the odds in the general election and topped the poll in his native Wexford, returning to the Dail as one of the just seven Labour TDs to keep their seats.

Mr Howlin sounds a cautious note on the fate of public sector workers under the newly formed Fine Gael-led minority government.

He warns that the new government could do "terrible damage very quickly" if it negotiates new pay deals with unions who have not signed up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

The pay deal runs until September 2018 and has seen some moderate restoration of public sector pay and pension entitlement - mostly focused on lower paid workers.

But there are still several unions yet to sign up to the deal.

The agreement reached between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael commits to the full implementation of the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

It also supports the gradual reversal of public sector cuts set out in Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Fempi) legislation.

But there are also plans to establish a Public Service Pay Commission to examine pay levels for public sector workers.

Mr Howlin said there will be an expectation from those who signed up to the deal that all workers are treated the same.

"The incoming government will have to determine if there will be a collapsing of Lansdowne Road Agreement or a full implementation, because there is no happy medium," he said.

An avalanche of pay claims are expected in the coming weeks and months from unions across the public sector.

The former minister said there are "pent up" demands from public sector workers due to the Coalition parties celebrating the economic recovery during the general election campaign.

"People see a recovered economy and it is a fair point to make that parties who were in government want to have a recovering economy as one of their achievements, and the corollary was people said 'if we are recovered can we please have our money back'," he said.

"Well, they didn't say please," he adds with a smile.

Last week, Mr Howlin and former Environment Minister Alan Kelly came to a revised pay arrangement with fire-fighters which will see full-time recruits who joined in 2012 paid the same as those who signed up in previous years.

The deal was done under the terms of Lansdowne Road and Mr Howlin hopes it will set a precedent for other workers.

"I told the Taoiseach I want to facilitate and help the new government on its way. I think he understood what I meant," he said.

"I think of all things they understand, a Labour minister in this department dealing with the public sector unions has been important," he added.

But does he believe Fine Gael will continue to restore pay over the next few years?

"Turn off that tape and I might answer that question," he said

But it's a fair question?

"I don't know what the next government will do and that's the truth of it - we'll see," he conceded.

However, he is complimentary of the incoming Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe, who clashed with unions during his time in the Department of Transport.

"Paschal has plenty of experience in dealing with the unions," Mr Howlin said.

The Labour TD is coy about what the future may hold for him now that his party has returned to the opposition benches.

Labour Party leader Joan Burton committed to making a decision on her position once the government was formed. Party rules demand an automatic vote on leadership when Labour moves into opposition. That happened late on Friday night.

Speaking the day before the Government was formed, Mr Howlin was reluctant to say if he will go for the top job if or when Ms Burton steps aside.

He is being urged to go for the position by senior Labour figures who believe he should take up the role on an interim basis as the party rebuilds after the disastrous election.

Mr Howlin has twice run for the leadership and was unsuccessful on both occasions.

Alan Kelly has also been very clear about his leadership ambitions and is unlikely to clear the path for his colleague.

Cork East TD Sean Sherlock might also throw his hat into the ring.

So it is far from guaranteed that Mr Howlin would win the leadership contest.

"I haven't made a decision," Mr Howlin insisted.

"There are a lot of things to weigh up - my life, what I want to do, the party, what's in the best interest. Lots of things. The attitudes of others. There are lots of things to consider," he added.

Has he been petitioning for support among members?

"I haven't been asking anybody but lots of people have been asking me," he said.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section