Wednesday 16 October 2019

John Drennan: Croke Park deal stays as long as it works: Howlin

Minister critical of 'inertia' at top on reforms


THE Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin has slammed those critics of the Croke Park Agreement who claim that it is an exercise in appeasement of the public sector workforce.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, the Cabinet heavy-hitter said Croke Park was driving radical reform "in 70 concrete areas'' whilst maintaining an atmosphere of industrial peace.

And he asked how else but by agreement could "we implement a scenario where there are 20,000 gone and 23,500 to go''.

Responding to concerns that most of the departures consist of frontline workers, the minister warned that when it comes to the shedding of jobs, "downsizing is going to have to include the back office and not merely be confined to front-office level''.

He also noted that a new, more flexible public service would allow "3,000 new staff to be recruited to resolve skill shortages''.

But, in an indication of dissatisfaction at the rate of progress when it comes to reform in certain areas of the public sector, Mr Howlin was also openly critical of a culture of "inertia'' and "lack of ambition'' amongst some higher grade public sector workers which was hampering the determination of younger lower grade civil servants to change the public sector ethos.

The straight-talking minister issued a warning that such "inertia'' represented a real threat to the ongoing survival of the Croke Park Agreement.

The controversial deal is rapidly losing support amongst the public and a significant rump of idealistic first-term Fine Gael deputies is becoming seriously disenchanted with the agreement.

"It is working, and it is common sense to keep it,'' claimed Mr Howlin. But the minister warned that the Government's support of Croke Park was "conditional".

"The day it [Croke Park] doesn't make sense or if we don't get the reforms, then that changes everything," he maintained.

He also identified what he called a "degree of inertia at middle management level... that is not ambitious about bringing in a change agenda''.

Mr Howlin noted that many middle and low-ranking civil servants were enthusiastic about reform but that "in some of the interactions I have had'', one charge he has heard "is that it is management who are not proactive'' on reform.

He also bluntly told the Sunday Independent that "we certainly do not take diktats'' from trade union leaders.

Croke Park, he said, was acting as "an enabler of fundamental change'' in critical areas such as changes in Garda rosters and in education and in health which have occurred without strife or the kind of 'work to rule' which last year caused chaos in the Passport Office.

The minister also questioned "how will people earning, for example, below €60,000 pay their mortgages'' if further cuts in pay and increments are made.

The Minister for Public Expenditure made it clear, however, that if Croke Park does not work, "there are very painful choices along the way'.'

In a separate development, Brian Hayes, the Fine Gael Minister for State at the Department of Public Sector Reform, echoed Brendan Howlin's concerns over the willingness of middle and top-level public sector workers to "buy into reform".

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Independent, he said: "I have to say eight months into office, there is still a big question mark over that.''

But within Fine Gael, significant numbers of its TDs are resentful of the fact that "Labour's core public sector support is being cosseted while the productive ones, our supporters, are paying the price''.

Though the split in Fine Gael has broken down on lines that are quite similar to the 2010 failed leadership heave, sources within the party said "it is too simplistic to say this is about egos or personality''.

Instead, Enda Kenny's difficulties are coming from new TDs who "thought they were going to change the world and are now finding they can't even change Croke Park".

One party grandee noted "anyone who is genuinely thinking about the state of the country, or who can do basic maths realises Croke Park is not just the elephant in the room but that the elephant is getting bigger and the room is getting smaller''.

Amidst escalating fears that divisions over Croke Park will dominate the new political year within Labour, however, one respected back-bencher warned that "changing Croke Park is a Rubicon the party are not prepared to cross''.

See Brian Hayes

Sunday Independent

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