Tuesday 20 March 2018

The Monday Interview: For the sake of our country we had to cut public pay

Oonagh Buckley says €2bn income axe 'necessary', writes Anne-Marie Walsh

Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission Photo: Mark Condren
Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission Photo: Mark Condren

Anne-Marie Walsh

Oonagh Buckley may be one of the few public servants who believes the €2bn pay cuts they suffered at the height of the financial crisis were "certainly" necessary.

The new director general of the State's chief industrial relations mediation body suffered some criticism from colleagues in her old job.

She was the senior official in charge of the Department of Finance division that crafted the emergency legislation that allowed the government to impose the cuts, before being appointed to the top job at the Workplace Relations Commission. "I was once introduced to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny by Brendan Howlin as the woman who cut his pay five times," Ms Buckley said.

"But he was very sweet about it.

"I had a very difficult role in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in that I was responsible for public service pay and pensions during seven or eight very difficult years.

"People have stopped mentioning it to me now, finally, so hopefully the mark has gone off my back.

"If you can appreciate that my partner's a civil servant, and my friends are civil servants, and my bosses are civil servants.

"I was working for a minister, and my father was a public service pensioner and I was cutting all of their income.

"There was a bit of joshing about it. Public servants are very fair in that they can distinguish the person from the job so they know that but for the fact that I happened to be in that job at that time, I wouldn't have been going around cutting people's pay but that's what was necessary at the time for the sake of the country. And it certainly was necessary."


She was one of the first to know what was going to happen when the cuts were contemplated.

Plan A was giving public servants unpaid leave, which was initially agreed by former taoiseach Brian Cowen, but when that fell by the wayside plan B was introduced and she found herself working on Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest legislation with the attorney general's office.

"The impression one got was that there was division at the cabinet table and one side decided the commitments being given weren't solid enough to base a budget around," she said.

She said on her first Christmas after working an "incredible" amount of extra hours and late nights her father said: 'At the end of that you got to cut your own pay'.

"But I got my revenge because his pension was cut the following year," she joked.

The employment rights enforcer said it was a very big moment for her when she eventually got to give someone a pay rise last year when the pension levy was eased under the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

She also revealed that the Workplace Relations Commission is contemplating if there are grounds to take criminal action following the Clerys insolvency case.

She said commission inspectors were under ministerial appointment to act "in respect of the specific aspects of the way staff were treated" and were examining the case from a legal enforcement perspective.

"Whether anything comes from that, it hasn't been yet determined," she said.

A trained barrister, her most senior officials are also women - Anny Perry and Aoibheann Ni Shuilleabhain. The retired and long-serving director general Kieran Mulvey and the current chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, had been at the helm of the commission for many years.

Unlike Mr Mulvey, who was often on the airwaves and had a background as a union leader, she has been a civil servant for over 20 years and jokingly refers to herself as a "very nervous senior civil servant, who rarely steps out of the shadows".

Raised in Cork, she is the daughter of a hospital consultant and university lecturer.

She likes to sail in Schull, and is now six months in her new role.


She started at the Department of Foreign Affairs and was later a director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, before moving to the Department of Finance to avoid decentralisation, just as the economy began to collapse.

Following a reshuffle of staff, she was given the pay brief just as it got "really interesting".

She believes the upcoming talks on a successor to the Lansdowne Road Agreement will be "extremely challenging".

Ms Buckley said there is an "inevitability" that pay cuts will be restored although the pace of this is a "matter for the parties".

In relation to the value of pensions, which will be taken into account at the talks, she said public servants need to be "realistic" about the costs for employers and themselves.

"It can't all be the taxpayers' obligation," she said. "It's not all that now, but it's quite balanced towards the taxpayer at the moment."

She said recent disputes have tended to centre around the single issue of pay, which was understandable after a long period of stagnation or cuts.

She said most private sector workers had "arguably" done better in the last few years due to moderate pay awards, although she added that more of them lost their jobs during the downturn.

Although she said that you can still count the number of big industrial disputes on one hand, there has been a "slightly worrying" development in that workers are resorting to industrial action a little earlier than had been the case.

She said the commission is challenging this by contacting unions when they ballot their members without having contacted her office.

"There's little point losing a week's pay pursuing a 2pc pay increase, because that's 2pc of pay right there they've lost and then the company lose, and the users of the public service lose... so it's really important to try and resolve before it gets to that stage," Ms Buckley said.

"I've never regarded it as a satisfactory outcome if someone is to lose a day's pay."

Irish Independent

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