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Brendan Howlin: Industrial peace is critical on our journey to recovery

SOMEBODY asked me recently why the Government had spent so long seeking agreement with the public service unions regarding pay and pension bill savings from 2013 to 2016. After all, at the conclusion of discussions at the Labour Relations Commission, on Haddington Road, we had been talking for the guts of five months.

The answer is a simple one. The possibility of agreement increases the value of the savings hugely.

Ultimately, this agreement is more than a series of public service pay deals.

It is about how Ireland faces the remaining challenges as we seek to reclaim our sovereignty and our future in the months ahead.

There has been a tendency since this crisis began in 2008 to represent the interests of the private sector and public sector workers as conflicting. Blogs and online comments fill up speedily with the claims and counter claims of workers in each sector.

But any private sector figure I talk to knows the value of industrial peace to Ireland. It is one of the factors that distinguished us from Greece at the height of the crisis and it is critical in our path to recovery in the years ahead. They know a public service strike would cost Ireland dearly in the long run.

There is no benefit for anybody in mutually assured destruction.

Our capacity to pay our way in the world, which is ultimately the basis on which we can determine what we pay ourselves, what taxes we levy and public services we can afford, will remain difficult in the years ahead.

But that challenge will become all the greater in the years ahead if we don't maintain the unity of purpose that we have displayed to date.

The issues now facing public servants considering these new proposals are not simply about their pay and conditions. They have broader ramifications for an economy that ultimately supports all public services and determines how we all live.

I believe these latest proposals from the LRC represent a fair compromise following the rejection of the first LRC proposals by the Congress Public Services Committee.

The Government has listened to public servants. The new proposals go much further than a tweaking of the previous proposals. The Government had always indicated that it was open to innovative solutions to the savings question from individual unions and sectors. We saw some of those in the first set of discussions and more again were brought forward for the current proposals.

As minister responsible for the public service, I welcome that. Modern trade unionism is about representing members through problem-solving. This is particularly so in the public service where public servants are not just employees, they are tax-paying and service-using stakeholders as well.

Ireland and all of our citizens, public and private sector employees, cannot afford the wasted energy that conflict would involve. God knows the challenges ahead of us are great enough.

The last five years have highlighted some of the best qualities of Irish society. We have responded to a catastrophic economic shock with dignity and resolve.

We have tried to hold the balance between meeting the needs of the weakest in our society while preserving our capacity to generate the wealth necessary to sustain that compassion. I accept this perspective is a minority one at the moment and I also understand why.

These last five years have caused genuine hardship. But I believe that when the historians turn their attention to this period in decades to come, the story of our recovery from this morass will be as prominent as the story of our downfall.

I see these revised LRC proposals in this broader context. Yes, they represent real challenges for individual public servants and I know well that this is not the first ask of them.

Yesterday saw the publication of the final LRC proposals and government legislation about how savings would be achieved in the absence of an agreement. The contrast between the two is clear.

But, as I said at the outset of the negotiations back in January, this is the last ask of public servants in terms of income reductions.

It is a matter now for public servants to decide.

Brendan Howlin is Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

Irish Independent