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Facts and data, not spin and emotion, should determine our pay policies


(stock photo)

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

How very typical of how things are done in this country. A few weeks after the Government blinked first in a stand-off with members of An Garda Síochána, we get a report that would have blown the pay claims of the GRA and AGSI clean out of the water. And all the taxpayer is left with is the creaking sound of the stable door being shut, long after the horse has bolted.

If the Horgan Report had been available just a few weeks earlier, it's hugely doubtful the gardaí would have got anything close to the €50m sweetheart deal they achieved, even with the threat of strike action. The figures produced are that stark: average pay across the force is €63,450 and, if the value of pension provision is factored in, average total remuneration rises to more than €100,000.

The AGSI and GRA can dispute the figures as much as they like. But it's clear that, on average, gardaí are paid considerably more than other public-sector workers - who, in turn, are paid a lot more than the average private-sector worker. Their pension provision is far better as well.

Many of the figures were available from the CSO already. But John Horgan's report brings a clarity to gardaí's pay that certainly wasn't there when the debate over their planned strike was taking place. That's not Mr Horgan's fault. He not only hit his deadline of December 12, he makes clear in his report that, at different stages with the various parties (including the relevant Government departments), he "offered to bring forward the date of my report if that would be helpful. None of the parties took up this offer".

Just why the Government side wouldn't have accepted the offer beggars belief. It's the political equivalent of a lawyer opting not to call the star witness in a court case or a team leaving their best player on the bench for the county final.

The GRA and AGSI must have spent Monday thanking their lucky stars their members had wisely opted to accept the Labour Court deal. There had been some speculation in the days after the deal was reached that members might reject it. That never seemed wise on their part - the Horgan Report showed it would have been foolish in the extreme. It wouldn't have been on offer a second time.

We already knew the Government, in its eagerness to head off a confrontation with the gardaí, had effectively sacrificed the Lansdowne Road Agreement, almost two years before it was due to conclude. But Horgan's report has left them looking even weaker.

You can't blame the leaders of the other public-sector unions. Once they saw that the gardaí were being handsomely rewarded for taking on the Government, they could hardly tell their members they had to keep playing ball with Lansdowne.

And, if anything, the findings of the Horgan Report will only strengthen the resolve of other public-sector workers to get a new, better deal: 'If the best-paid group in the public sector got a hefty pay rise, why shouldn't we look for one too?' In that scenario, and given the mood of the unions, it's difficult to see how the planned January talks between the Government and the unions to discuss the "anomalies" arising out of the Garda deal won't involve some money being put on the table - even if the early renegotiation of Lansdowne is put off until later in the year.

Yet, the Public Service Pay Commission, established to examine pay across the public sector, won't be reporting until after Easter. This raises the prospect of another side deal being agreed prior to the full facts being available. The commission was explicitly set up to ensure evidence-based, hard data on public sector pay and pensions - with reference also to the private sector - would be central to any future negotiations on pay. Yet, just as happened with the Horgan Report, there remains a danger it will be overtaken by events.

The truth is that the case for additional across-the-board public-sector pay increases is a weak one. The figures show that, unlike the rest of Europe, public-sector workers are paid significantly more than their private-sector counterparts.

And that's before public-sector pensions are factored in. The value put by Mr Horgan on garda pensions suggests that the 12pc discount, applied by the 2007 public-service benchmarking body to take account of public-sector pensions, seriously underestimated their worth. Mr Horgan suggested that garda pensions were the equivalent of an additional 80pc in pay. Gardaí certainly enjoy better pension arrangements than other public servants - their full service is 30 years compared to the public-sector norm of 40. But the guaranteed standard pension available to public-sector workers is way beyond what is available in the private sector. And while public-sector workers do make a contribution to their pension, it's nowhere near meeting the cost of financing it.

It's impossible to see how this can be overlooked. Yet despite all this, the debate on public-sector pay has been fought largely on the unions' terms. 'Restoration' has been the mantra, with political parties reluctant to tackle the narrative. But restoration means bringing public-sector pay back to the levels funded by a bubble in 2008.

The 160pc increase in the public-sector pay bill that took place in the 10 years up to that point was one of the factors that caused our budgetary and fiscal crisis. Pay restoration is not affordable. And, if granted, will come at the expense of public services.

The Horgan Report came too late to influence the debate on Garda pay. But the lesson it brings must not be lost - facts and hard data, rather than spin and emotion, must determine Government policy. And, at a minimum, that must mean no new deals on public-sector pay until the Pay Commission reports.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent