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Kevin Myers: It is madness that public-service absenteeism is an accepted norm

Bridget Sweeney (left) and Frances Carew.

LET me outline two rather revealing employment disputes in the public sector. The first concerns a teacher, Bridget Sweeney, who was awarded €88,000 damages after a court heard that the principal of Ballinteer Community School had employed private detectives to check on her movements over a four-day period in 2008. That, naturally, got the headlines: less visible was the background to the head's action.

Bridget Sweeney was a fulltime "home-school co-ordinator" -- and no, I've no idea what such a job consists of. Apparently, not always a great deal. Between 2005 and 2007, Sweeney alleged that she was bullied. This complaint was investigated, but not sustained, by an independent barrister.

In March 2007, she finally returned to work after 209 days' sick leave. By her own account, she now had a plan to avoid all contact with the head teacher, Austin Corcoran. But how can any school employee -- never mind that exotic creation, a home-school co-ordinator -- do her job without any contact with the school principal?

By October 2007, (after, naturally, the usual three-month summer break) her plan had apparently evolved into permanent absence from school. In the words of Mr Justice Daniel Herbert, who heard her legal action for damages, "no one really knew what she was doing during her working day" though he was "satisfied" she was doing her duties with dedication as "she always had". (Always? As when she had taken 209 sick days?)

Moreover, he accepted that Corcoran had "reasonable concerns" over the "total lack of information" about where Sweeney was, and what she was doing. He also found that the teacher's conduct was "inappropriate and should not have been tolerated by the board of management".

Well, if they'd been able to contact her, maybe they'd have been able to tell her just that, and in person.

In February 2008, after five months of no-show, Corcoran finally hired a private-investigator to see what his missing home-school coordinator was up to. However, she soon spotted the super whiz-kid PI's car while leaving her home at 9.15am, a quarter of an hour after most schools have begun their day. The gardai were called, and finally arrived that afternoon at a shop where Sweeney was waiting for them. A shop, eh? And this was while she was working with her usual dedication as a home-school co-ordinator, was it? What an interesting job, this home-school coordination business seems to be.

Mr Justice Herbert awarded her a total of €88,000 in damages for the "truly terrifying" experience of having been "stalked" (his word) by a private detective; yet another example of the jurisprudential sagacity that so often impresses us amateur watchers of the bench. I just wish someone would send a PI to stalk me.

However, I am left to wonder, what is any school principal to do about an employee of whose activities and whereabouts he remains in total ignorance for months on end? (The department retired her "on health grounds", eight months after the incident with the detective).

The Employment Appeals Tribunal last week heard an unfair dismissal case from a Frances Carew, who had been sacked by, yes, the Employment Appeals Tribunal. At its conclusion, the chairwoman of the tribunal, Niamh O'Carroll Kelly, summed up the proceedings by declaring that Carew had effectively done nothing for five years, from the time she joined EAT in 2003. Yet despite this, Carew managed to rack up the second-highest figure for mileage expenses amongst tribunal secretaries -- at three times the lowest level.

Moreover, the bizarre sense of entitlement possessed by the fair Carew is revealed in her complaint: "I had been travelling to places like Cahirciveen. I love the south-west coast, but then I started getting trips to Louth."

Well, that's the primary purpose of employing public servants, isn't it? To let them have little breaks at our expense -- to Kerry, preferably; whereas Louth is purest oppression and hardship.

However, soon Carew stopped going to work at all -- "I had lost interest at that stage".

She added: "I used to go to the National Gallery, and I knew then that somebody was stalking me. It was nasty."

Quite so. And after nearly FIVE YEARS of such absences -- she even failed to appear at the disciplinary hearing into her "poor" (ie, non-existent) attendance -- she was finally sacked.

So there we have two women employees of the State who for a very long time did little or no visible work -- yet such is the public-service culture that they remained on the payroll throughout, and then sued the State for outcomes they didn't like. And these are merely the visible peaks of an extraordinary public-service iceberg.

Throughout 2008, the 120,000-strong workforce of the Health Service Executive each averaged nearly one day's uncertificated sick leave per month, while nearly 60pc of all civil servants took sick leave that year. Some 68pc of all "sick-leave" was by women, averaging 14 days each, with females aged over 55 averaging 17 days.

The bank debts are now evil legacies we must bear: but it is madness unconfined that public-service absenteeism is still an accepted norm.

Irish Independent