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Mulvey's strategy of divide and conquer got Howlin off the hook

THE Government has effectively stumbled into what might now be called a third Croke Park deal with the public-sector unions.

While Expenditure & Reform Minister Brendan Howlin stood back, periodically waving the big stick of harsher pay cuts imposed by legislation, it was the experienced chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, Kieran Mulvey, who pursued the tactic of negotiating with each union separately in each sector, rather than a 'one size fits all' approach with the public-sector unions as a whole, which proved to be the downfall of Croke Park II.

Though Mr Mulvey was involved in the original Croke Park II talks, he was more a facilitator then.

This time, he was rolling up his sleeves and doing what Mr Howlin should have allowed him to do almost six months ago.

Pending the outcome of union ballots over the next few weeks, it appears that – notwithstanding €50m here or there – Mr Mulvey has got Mr Howlin and the Government off the hook.

When the unions overwhelming rejected the original Croke Park II pay cut proposals, it was as much of a shock to the unions themselves as anybody else.

Under every national agreement over the past 25 years, those unions opposed to national agreements automatically voted against those deals in the full knowledge that the bigger unions such as Siptu and Impact would get the deal over the line.

Those unions could thump the table for the benefit of their members and then quietly slip under the protections those national deals offered.

But this time, those unions found themselves in the majority and on the eve of war with the Government.

Mr Howlin was shell-shocked by the unions' decision and feared he might go down in history as the first Labour minister to impose wage cuts on public-service workers.

But Mr Mulvey, with his vast experience in industrial relations, knew that the unions did not have the stomach to engage in what would have to be a lengthy, sustained and costly industrial battle with the Government.

Mr Mulvey has been chief executive of the LRC since 1991 and before that leader of the teachers' union, the Asti.

In that time, despite having to arbitrate between warring unions and employers, he has managed to maintain strong relations with unions and employers, and the respect is mutual.

He has also used his contacts at the very senior level of Government, which he was able to deploy to good effect this time also.

The Roscommon-born Mr Mulvey knew that the unions and Mr Howlin were looking for a way out.

The strategy he pursued of pressurising each union separately meant that each union had to accept the revised terms themselves or face more draconian cuts through legislation.

This time, there would be no hiding behind an overall Ictu vote.

There would be no 'get out of jail' card.

While Mr Howlin repeated the mantra of €300m this year and €1bn by 2015, Mr Mulvey knew that it was worth a few million in sector-specific concessions to placate the most intransigent unions and avoid the heavier cost of mutually assured destruction.

While the divide and conquer approach has worked, it does suggest that future deals with the unions will be primarily done on a sectoral basis with an overarching general deal as in this case, rather than at an overall Ictu level.

This is a key shift in the industrial landscape, which threatens to weaken Ictu and its unified negotiating strength.

Welcoming yesterday's deal with the unions, Mr Howlin appeared to have come round to Mr Mulvey's approach of concession bargaining when he said that, while the figures were important, maintaining industrial peace and a sense of confidence for investors was equally important.

Irish Independent