Saturday 14 December 2019

Martina Devlin: Angry at mess they got us into? Join the queue

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I queued to collect my passport on Tuesday. I left empty-handed. But not before witnessing panic and distress in one camp, and an insulting display of detachment in the other. All the shoulder-shrugging was taking place on the Passport Office's side, in case you hadn't guessed.

The slow-moving line of people hoping for passports felt like a chain gang. Except morale was probably higher on chain gangs.

Someone kept my place while I went to the head of the column. "Would you not think about managing the queue differently?", I asked the security guard inside the building -- the only staff member visible.

"Everybody has to queue," he said. "Of course," I agreed. "But some people are collecting passports, which you do upstairs; and some are applying for passports, which you do on this floor. Wouldn't it make sense to have separate queues?"

"Everybody has to queue," he intoned. No doubt his job was unpleasant, at the coal-face, but his response raises questions. Efficiency? Flexibility? Resourcefulness? Just get back in line, or go home without a passport.

Most of those in the line-up had no choice except to continue waiting on the off chance of service. Not having immediate travel plans, I yielded the field to hardier souls.

But we're so accustomed to holding passports now, and to travelling abroad at short notice, that I can't help feeling exposed without a valid passport. Plus, it's an erosion of freedom. Public servants are claiming a campaign of vilification is being whipped up against them by the media. That's untrue. The media is simply reflecting general frustration at being unable to access travel documentation.

"This is a nightmare for my members," Eoin Ronayne, CPSU deputy general secretary, said on RTE's 'News At One' yesterday. Hello? It's a nightmare inflicted by his members.

I expect they feel cornered, desperate about pay cuts, worried about meeting bills. But I've received a sea of emails from people who have lost their jobs and are afraid they'll lose their homes. Some say they'd emigrate only they're too old to be accepted into countries looking for workers. Others are returned emigrants sorry they ever came back. They are all in the private sector. From public servants, what I hear is complaints about loss of income.

Naturally this is worrying for them, but it is not comparable. Yes, public servants have a right to feel betrayed. We all were. They are not being victimised, however.

Here is a representative email from a public servant two weeks ago, after I criticised strikes dressed up as stoppages: "This government tried to walk all over public servants because they saw them as a soft target. It is unfortunate that is necessary for the general public to be made to appreciate the often excellent service provided. But c'est la vie.

"We are proud to provide a service to the people of Ireland but public services cost money and many commentators do not want to pay for them. There appears to be an expectation that public sector staff should work for nothing. We are proud but not stupid."

I have sympathy for low-paid civil servants taking pay cuts, while senior colleagues had theirs reversed. That decision was dismissive and divisive, and I'd say the stupidity of it beggared belief except there's so much evidence of stupidity you don't know where to start.

Successive Fianna Fail governments created this crisis: they fuelled the property bubble, were over-reliant on it for tax revenues and failed to regulate the banks. That's why our finances are in tatters. Not because we have a bloated public service. But at 300,000-strong, it needs streamlining.

It's not the public servants' fault -- it's Buy-His-Way-Out Bertie's. Nevertheless, reform is as inevitable as the pain it will cause. It's unpalatable taking our medicine from Doctor Cowen and his ministering angels, who can't rustle up a single halo between them. But either we erect barricades, withhold taxes and mount a campaign of civil disobedience to topple this administration, or we wait for a general election to oust it.

Meanwhile, in the new reality of post-boom Ireland, some sectors have more work to do than others. For example; the NCT currently has a backlog, with test dates delayed by a couple of months, partly because motorists can't afford to upgrade their cars. Recently, a mechanic told me he's never been busier in 20 years in the business; every cloud has a silver lining.

The new reality means some government departments are now busier than others, and staff will have to be reassigned to meet demand. Mind you, I sometimes wonder if any of them are really busy. The public service has been on a work-to-rule since the beginning of the year but until the Easter holidays approached and passport applications shot up, nobody noticed. Obviously there are legitimate grievances among Passport Office employees, as in other public service sectors.

BUT when I went there three weeks ago to make my application, the surliness of counter staff was marked. The woman processing my application stopped, mid-sentence, for a lengthy conversation with a colleague who appeared at her elbow. That's just plain rude. If it was a shop, I'd take my custom elsewhere.

It is counter-productive of the public service to transfer their animosity to the people who pay their wages. None of us can wash our hands of the consequences of our actions and shrug "c'est la vie".

We're all in this together. It's called nationhood.

Irish Independent

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