Sunday 19 January 2020

'Keep the recovery going' was slogan that came back to bite Government

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Anne-Marie Walsh

There's a lot hanging on Enda Kenny's mojo. Now that it's back, it could not be put to better use than in trying to emanate the industrial relations prowess of his old rival Bertie Ahern and stopping the catastrophic events that may result if gardaí go on strike for the first time in their history next Friday.

At least during the last big garda pay protest when they went on 'sick leave' en masse, there was still a good number of gardaí on the beat.

If a deal is not struck over this Halloween weekend, and then accepted, next weekend will be looking a lot more scary, not just for the citizens of this country but Mr Kenny's government.

If children are out of school and there are no police on the streets, he will face some of the toughest questions of his political career. If there is another gangland hit during the industrial action, or the unthinkable, an outside threat to the security of the State, the outlook will be bleak.

The decision to break the law by going on strike has been taken by gardaí and many people will agree with aspiring Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the public will never look on them in the same way again if it goes ahead.

But Mr Varadkar's party has had five years to deal with many of the problems they now have just days to address. A serious lack of communication with gardaí over this time has led to a growing feeling of isolation, not only with the government, but the public sector unions. Their associations do not have union rights and little clout in direct negotiations since the days of social partnership or the more recent public sector pay deals.

Their isolation can probably be seen in the €23,750 basic pay packet for new recruits, compared with €31,000 for teachers, when decades ago they enjoyed parity.

If the problem had been nipped in the bud when gardaí first refused to back the Lansdowne Road Agreement by the Government making some of the offers it has more recently tabled to get them on board, it might not be in this position.

During the time it has taken to reach this point, the appetite for pay rises and the industrial action necessary to get them has grown. The Government has been talking up the economy, epitomised in its ill-fated election slogan 'keep the recovery going', while its Labour ex-partner in government heralded 2015 as the 'year of the pay rise'.

But at the same time, it has been insisting that its public pay policy - otherwise known as the Lansdowne Road Agreement - is the only show in town. The deal ensures moderate pay rises worth around €2,000 up to 2018.

The Government accepts the Budget was no giveaway and the promised USC cuts were 'underwhelming' in terms of the impact on workers' pockets.

Many have seen the general election result as evidence that workers were not backing Fine Gael's promise of tax cuts and are instead more interested in wage increases. At the least, they may have been irritated by the suggestion that they would be supporting a recovery they were not really feeling in their pockets.

Union conferences earlier this year showed this was certainly the feeling in the public sector, as demands for acceleration of pay restoration grew. This is code for more pay rises. The emboldened general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, John Jacob, got a standing ovation when he declared he was willing to go to jail in pursuit of better pay.

But it was the semi-state sector and those with the power to stop vital services that were first off the mark. Luas drivers are now looking forward to a pay rise up to 18pc in instalments to September 2020, and Dublin Bus drivers are set for similar increases. The success of their campaigns of rolling work stoppages, followed by the threat of all-out strikes, will not have been lost on gardaí or teachers.

They did not sign up to the Lansdowne Road Agreement for many reasons, including working extra hours and low pay for recruits. But more recently, they have focused on speeding up pay 'restoration'. Sergeants and inspectors have lodged a claim for a 16.5pc increase.

When the Department of Justice recently made an offer to the rank and file, it meant little hard cash beyond a €4,000 rent allowance for recruits. It didn't wash with longer-serving members.

It's easy to reach a deal, but the difficult bit will be selling it to the militant divisions of the Garda Representative Association. It may already be too late, as gardaí may feel they need a "day out" before a compromise will be reached.

Department officials have struggled to reach a deal that will not upset public servants who backed the Lansdowne Road pact. They have now enlisted the Workplace Relations Commission's help.

It looks like the Government will have to buy its way out of this one.

Irish Independent

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