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John Downing: It's not ideal, but Croke Park deal has helped level the playing pitch

THE people who do indust-rial relations compose their own jargon like nobody else -- in fact, they make those much-maligned Eurocrats seem positively innocent in the verbiage department.

Few of us can recall that the deal between the Government and the public service unions is actually called 'The Public Service Agreement' 2010-2014. Most people know it, and many private sector people hate it, as the Croke Park Agreement, named after the place this deal was made.

Now, the Government and the unions are walking so carefully that, even before the talking about the expected renewal of the deal starts next year, we are being told it will not be the 'Son of Croke Park'. It will be more like 'Croke Park's Genial First Cousin' -- a harmless enough sort of a character -- in fact those IR jargon mongers are already calling it 'Croke Park 1.5', never 'Croke Park 2'.

There is much to criticise about Croke Park 1. The guarantee of job security has enraged people who must take their chances with private sector shutdowns and lay-offs.

It has been slow and somewhat lumbering in meeting the targets of cutting numbers and wage costs while delivering more flexibility. The infamous Clause 1.28, which deals with 'inability to pay', has proved as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Since the deal was done in 'Croker' at Christmas 2009 and ratified by the bulk of public service unions in summer 2010, the Irish economy has had one misfortune after another. But service cuts, job losses and emigration are the daily lot of many non-Croke-Park-protected workers. By contrast there has been no talk of public pay cuts beyond those effected in Budget 2010.

In practice, if 'inability to pay' was invoked by the Government there would be major public service strikes and disruption. So the Government continues to borrow to fund public service pay including the continued payment of increments.

On top of all that, when expected Croke Park renewal talks start in the new year, pay cuts are again unlikely to feature. The Government is expected to try to squeeze the public sector for more productivity and more targeted redundancies.

The talks will come against a background of the centenary of the 1913 lockout, when the heroes of the labour movement led brave workers to assert their rights. It will arm the union side with some arguments and appeals to history. But it should provide the government negotiators with some rhetoric of their own to tell a few home truths to public service union leaders.

They could point out that non-union temporary public service workers, such as home helps, find their hours cut with little redress. They could point to the plight of private sector workers, the unemployed and those forced yet again to emigrate. In sum, they could keep making the case that 'social solidarity' is a two-way street with at least as many responsibilities as rights.

But all these caveats being voiced, the Croke Park agreement has served us reasonably well. The lack of major public service strikes, such as those across Europe, has been remarkable and a bankable asset. It has helped project an image of Ireland as a place worth investing in.

It is also not reasonable to expect one government-public service union deal, designed to get us through recession, to also frame a complete revamp of our centuries-old system of public service delivery and workings.

Expensive and iniquitous Croke Park undoubtedly is. But it is more than likely worth it -- especially if the Government can drive a vastly harder bargain next time.

If we dare to believe latest projections of a return to modest econo-mic growth over the coming two years, 'Croke Park 1.5' might well be the only show in town.

Irish Independent