Wednesday 13 December 2017

The row has had more twists and turns than a rollercoaster ride

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Tom Burke
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Tom Burke
Tom Brady

Tom Brady

The road to strike for the two garda associations, whose members are set to officially withdraw their labour for the first time on Friday, has had many twists and turns over the past couple of years.

The mood of the gardaí during that time has deviated from frustration and anger to cautious optimism and finally deep disappointment.

As the nation escaped from the clutches of recession, the Garda Representative Association (GRA) and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) were eagerly looking forward to the outcome of a pay and conditions-of-service review which had been due for completion in June 2014.

However, that review dragged on endlessly throughout 2015 and it became clear after Christmas that progress was not likely to be achieved in the early part of this year.

Against that background, the annual conferences of both associations in April and May sent out clear signals that delegates wanted a tougher stance by their respective leaderships with even the traditionally conservative mid-ranking officers giving strong backing to their general secretary, John Jacob, when he pledged to risk being sent to jail by leading them out on strike.

The Garda concerns were compounded in mid-May when conciliation expert Ray McGee, who had been in charge of the review, stepped down for personal reasons and it emerged that he had been working alone without back-up staff and did not have an office.

He had been responsible for the talks covering two of the four strands contained in the Haddington Road agreement, dealing with the remuneration and conditions of service of the garda organisation.

The two associations held protest marches outside the Dáil during the summer and an increasingly militant GRA decided to hold a ballot on taking industrial action, with the options including the possibility of strike.

The new Lansdowne Road agreement for the public sector came into force in July with rank-and-file gardaí facing financial penalties after the GRA refused to sign up to the deal.

But fresh contacts between negotiators appeared to be making some headway in late August when the AGSI decided to accept the deal with a 71-29pc majority in a ballot.

The GRA stayed outside the agreement until September, when it seemed its leadership had struck a deal with the Department of Justice, which would mean the return of pay increments that had previously been denied to them, and the payment of a rent allowance to new recruits.

Over that weekend, however, the initial euphoria dissipated as the views of the membership became known and a special conference in Tullamore rejected the terms and prepared for strike action.

Members of the AGSI, meanwhile, were having second thoughts about their position after a frank discussion with Department of Public Expenditure officials established that the restoration of pay to pre-recession levels was not in the offing in the short term.

It lodged a claim for a 16.5pc pay increase earlier this month and its special conference in Athlone subsequently reversed its earlier stance with 95pc of delegates also supporting a strike.

Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has told the associations that their demands for access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court and the right to negotiate their own pay can be achieved.

But the key obstacle to a solution remains the absence of a cash element in any proposal, with Justice officials heavily constrained by the terms of the Lansdowne Road agreement and the fear that any breach will inevitably lead to a knock-on effect among other public sector unions and the overall collapse of the deal.

Tom Brady is former Irish Independent Security Editor

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