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Brian Hayes: We need cool heads and creative thinking to fix deal

Clearly the Government is disappointed with the outcome of Croke Park II. The deal worked out over many weeks provided the stability and assurance that both management and employees within the public sector needed between 2013 and 2016.

While some union leaders had the courage to argue for acceptance, effectively putting their reputation on the line, obviously the deal was rejected for many reasons. It won't be easy to find a resolution but we should try and, more importantly, we should listen.

Despite the defeat of Croke Park II, many of its core recommendations are still the only way forward if we are going to modernise the public service. Too often the debate is about pay cuts and not about the changes we have to make to deliver the public services we need. Those core elements cannot simply be wished away.

There are two fundamental realities that the Government and all public sector unions should face.

Reality one is that we have to find the €300m savings this year and the annualised savings of €1bn by 2015. This reality has to be confronted by everyone. As Brendan Howlin said, this reality won't go away by pretending that the problem does not exist.

Reality number two is that a deal on this issue is still the preferred option and can still be possible if some new thinking is brought to the debate.

I'm a great believer in the principal of jaw jaw over war war. More talking has to be preferable over the manning of the barricades.

We are on the cusp of economic recovery and close to the time when we can wave goodbye to the Troika. It would be madness to bring on some industrial warfare within the public sector when it has achieved so much with diminished budgets over recent years. Now is the time for cool heads and creative thinking.

And, of course, there is an element who want confrontation over any agreement. For them it's part of the Sinn Fein solution of failure at all costs and failure for political advantage.

We all know what Sinn Fein want. Their view of industrial relations within the public sector is to use the rejection of Croke Park II to further their narrow political agenda. They were licking their lips the other day in the Dail.

The Sinn Fein solution is based on the principal of taking out the 6,000 people who are on €100,000 plus, line them up against the wall, and equalise their pay. What they don't say is that there are only 6,000 in this category out of 290,000 people within the public sector. The simple truth is that the savings in the public pay bill cannot be achieved unless pay reductions across the board are put in place.

It's also important that politicians, particularly Fine Gael politicians like myself, say a few things in public that we sometimes choose to ignore. And maybe my colleagues in Fine Gael don't spend enough time saying these things.

So here we go. One, we don't have a big public sector by comparison to other countries. In fact our public sector is small with just 17 per cent of the total workforce.

Two, the public sector pay and pension bill was €20bn three years ago and is now €17.5bn. Close to 30,000 people have gone from the public sector over the past four years. This has obviously put pressure on the service and we need to appreciate that.

Three, the truth is public servants have seen reductions in their take-home pay in recent years with a new levy and pay cuts.

Of course, all those who have lost their jobs are in the private sector, with the personal devastation that goes with that. Public servants have guaranteed employment and frequently this is not recognised with the service. We need to see better management, work practices and genuine accountability, but many public servants I meet feel their work is often vilified by lazy journalism. Are there bad examples of the public service, of course there are. It's a complex and complicated organisation.

I spend some time speaking to international audiences about what we are trying to do in Ireland. International commentators are surprised by the reductions in the public pay bill in Ireland and also by the industrial peace despite these cuts. Are we really going to throw this away?

We need to spend some time listening to those unions and their members who want to find solutions. We hear that some public servants voted no because of family reasons; for others it was the suggestion of outsourcing. Either way, an opportunity exists to engage constructively.

The long-term sustainability of Ireland is linked to the long-term sustainability of the public service pay and pension bill. You can't have one without the other. The contribution needs to be recognised in a circumstance where 35 per cent of all public expenditure is on pay and pension.

In getting out of a financial programme where the lender of the last resort is in place because no one else will lend to us, you have to take ownership of that programme and implement that programme in a determined manner. Just as the Government has been decisive in getting the economy working, we must equally be decisive in responding to the Croke Park decision. The country and everyone's future depends on getting this right and resolving this problem in a fair and equitable way. Solutions can always be found.

Brian Hayes TD, Minister of State at the Dept of Finance

Irish Independent