Saturday 19 October 2019

The good, the bad and the ugly of our public sector

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Coming to the crunch on Croke Park II. Time to take a hard look at the public sector: the good, the bad and the ugly. Teachers are emblematic of all three.

A good teacher sets high standards for a class. Similarly, I set high standards for the public sector. And for the same reason. I care deeply for the public sector – and my record proves it.

Back in the Eighties, I helped set up a pressure group called the Committee for the Development and Expansion of the Public Sector. I wrote a pamphlet called 'Public Servants for the Public Service'. I was the media adviser for the successful Teachers Unite campaign.

So why did I become a critic of the public sector? Three reasons: benchmarking, recession and the public sector's retreat from reality. Benchmarking turned public servants into a privileged caste. Recession cut them from the suffering of workers in the private sector. Their retreat from reality began when they started to see themselves as victims.

Teachers, more than any other group, have tarnished the proud traditions of the public sector. Hence they feature prominently in the following brief review of the public sector: good, bad and ugly.

Let me begin with the good. Maurice Hayes, a role model for all civil servants, writes elsewhere in this paper about achieving excellence in the public service. For him, civil servants are not just cogs in the State's machine. They form part of the fabric of democracy itself.

"A permanent, fit-for-purpose civil service has also an important part to play in Irish democracy: a balancing mechanism in the machinery of government, as a brake on autocracy and as an important 'fifth estate' in Irish governance."

Hayes's concept of a "fifth estate" calls to mind Alexander Pope's lines: "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." A vague vision of that idea has been banging around the back of my mind for many years. But Hayes puts it plainly: the public service provides cadres who cannot be corrupted by passing political fads and fashions.

Conversely, Hayes is not averse to speaking with good authority. Here he is on public sector pay. "Where public sector pay amounts to 70 per cent of the cost of services, it is difficult to secure significant savings (short of a savage curtailment of services) without securing a reduction in the amount and the rates of pay."

He is also acid about pay and social partnership. "It always amazed me that this vital element (pay) should have been removed from democratic scrutiny and debate by the elected legislature and handed over to the social partnership – including such bizarre groups as superiors of religious orders."

Everyone who wants an excellent public service should read Hayes's call for reform and renewal. Although he couches his case in cool prose he cannot conceal his passion. It is a letter of love which lays down the principles for restoring his beloved public sector to its former proud place in public life.

So much for the good. Now for the bad. No sooner does a Maurice Hayes fill you with hope for the public sector than the teachers' unions present their backsides to show you the boils, warts and pimples.

Coming up to the teachers' conferences I made a resolution. If they showed respect for Ruairi Quinn I resolved to give the teachers the benefit of the doubt. Because Quinn is both the best minister in this Coalition and the best Minister for Education of my generation – going back to Donogh O Malley.

But when I saw the secondary teachers raise the red cards to Quinn on his birthday, and heckle him like hooligans, I said to myself: "Right then, let's take a look at your pay and conditions."

Irish teachers are the fourth-highest-paid among the OECD's 34 member countries. Only healthy economies like Germany, Luxembourg and Canada pay their teachers more. They have permanent and pensionable jobs. But that is not all.

Teachers get a total of 18 weeks off every year: 12 weeks in summer; one week October mid-term; two weeks at Christmas; one week February mid-term; two weeks at Easter. A world of free time which nobody in the private sector will ever experience – except during a long-term illness.

Incredibly, in spite of decent pay, permanence and long holidays, teachers still see themselves as victims. Have they no idea how much their self-absorbed, self-centred, self-pitying stance angers the general public? Or the role that annual conferences play in stoking that anger?

Finally, they are rotten trade unionists. The teachers' unions know if Croke Park II is not accepted most part-time teachers will face the sack. But they still cynically use these young teachers as cannon fodder in their campaign.

What baffles me is why young teachers let their smug colleagues get away with blaming the Government. In my day we would have given our union loudmouths an ultimatum. Strike, take a pay cut, or shut up.

Beyond bad there is ugly. Last Thursday, the Teachers' Union of Ireland became the first academic union in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel. The motion, passed unanimously, referred to Israel as an "apartheid state".

The aim of calling Israel an "apartheid" state is to smear it with the same brush as South Africa. But as someone who strongly supported the Irish Anti-Apartheid Association I can categorically state there is not the slightest comparison between South Africa and Israel. Passing this motion simply peddled propaganda.

That's because the motion conflated two separate groups. First, Israeli Arabs who form one-fifth of the population of Israel and have full civil rights. Second, Palestinians who live in Gaza under Hamas and who get a hard time for many reasons, including sending rockets into Israel.

South African non- whites under apartheid were separated by law. They could not vote, form parties or serve in government. The notion that a non-white woman could give birth in the same hospital as a white south African woman would be literally beyond the imagination of anyone in apartheid South Africa.

By contrast, Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel's population, are full citizens. They can vote, form parties, hold government posts, become civil servants and lawyers. The judge who sentenced a former Israeli prime minister for sexual transgressions was an Arab. Some apartheid.

From birth there is no apartheid in Israel. Jewish and Arab babies are born in the same delivery room, looked after by the same doctors and nurses. Jewish and Arab mothers recover side by side in adjoining beds. Some apartheid.

To call Israel an apartheid state is an attack on truth. As wrong as teaching that 2+2 makes 5. It confirms my belief that there are a lot of good teachers out there, but you won't find them at conferences.

Irish Independent

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