Saturday 7 December 2019

Medb Ruane: Passport Office chaos will just undermine our right to protest

Protest is a funny word. Take the scenes at Ireland's Passport Office. The level of stress dumped on everyday citizens is like a children's game of pass the parcel with a crown of spikes inside.

The wrapping reaches from Brian Cowen all the way to a Wicklow man with a simple request. He needed a passport because he has to follow the rules. He's no choice. But the only way he could win the promise of getting one was to chain himself to a door and refuse to budge until staff met his demands.

Chaos has ruled down on Dublin's Molesworth Street since the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) decided to make this dainty route a frontline. It is probably one of the least intelligent protests a union ever mounted, because it passed the parcel in the wrong direction. The innocents were spiked while the civil servants kept being paid.

You could make a book about what people had to endure. One woman threatened to go on hunger strike. Another wept in frustration. A man due in Stuttgart on business was told he'd qualify for priority treatment but was let down badly, after travelling through the night from north Donegal (for the second time).

That's before you hear about the damage to holiday plans, family reunions, job interviews abroad or the general right to travel that's accepted in a modern democracy. Then came a flood, and a hoax bomb scare designed to spread terror.

Grainne Cunningham's report for the Irish Independent caught the sense of unfairness passport-seekers feel. "This is the greatest cynical exercise I've ever seen in my life by people whose salaries I'm paying," said Michael Prendergast from Galway. "They are taking our money and delivering no service."

Is it a massive own goal by the CPSU or an early warning of what disruption people can expect if the rows between unions and Government gets really dirty? The armchair generals on all sides are treating everyday citizens as collateral damage, in the lead-up to serious negotiations about public sector reform.

With over 400,000 people on the live register now, this is a rather luxurious game to be playing. It's as though the everyday world hardly exists for these armchair-dwellers, as though they're not bothered about a shrinking private sector where the right to protest, or sometimes even to negotiate, is much less secure.

Close-up (and broadly) lower-paid civil servants believe that they were shafted in government pay cuts because a rake of higher-paid civil servants wrote themselves a different deal.

So in their heads, it's about being underdogs who never catch the hare.

Meanwhile, the hare-catchers are those higher-paids, who'll no doubt manage the crisis in a way that shows why they deserve their bigger salaries and pension deals, which shouts game, set and match to maintaining the status quo.

The game eased slightly after Eamon Gilmore said the CPSU's action should be suspended.

By then, there were mutterings about outsourcing the work, which would solve the immediate problem but cost even more. Protective strike notice served on Wednesday meant leaving a sword of Damocles over the Government's head.

All this mud-slinging is complicated -- and fundamentally last century. It's an attempt to interpret contemporary Ireland in a language that made sense when James Connolly or Jim and Delia Larkin spoke it, and everyone knew who the proletariat were.

Who are they now? Ireland and the world have changed so much that this last-century rhetoric has virtually nothing to offer in terms of problem-solving or resolving industrial disputes. It's as stale as the rhetoric coming from Brian Cowen's armchair, which is just as out-of-date.

The unions, like the Government, have lost much authority, but little power. They can indeed bring the country to its knees, as the cliché goes, if they want to. They can halt public transport, slow down children's education, turn accident and emergency rooms into living hells.

Why they'd want to is another matter. There's a sense of vindictiveness in the Passport Office protest which is unhealthy -- and unhelpful, too. Joe Nugent, the service head, said the situation was ugly. David Nolan, Secretary-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said he was personally upset.

Cowen and Lenihan led union leaders to think they were reaching agreement before the last Budget, then dropped them off the edge unceremoniously.

Is this the start of payback time? Some leaders said the Government has no vision of how to move on. They claimed that the Government is creating a fake divide between the public and the private sector.

Yet every story coming from Molesworth Street makes that divide more real.

The unions claim that the Government favoured bankers and developers over working people and the unemployed.

It's a legitimate view. Yet every action taken at the Passport Office shows that they too may victimise everyday people when it suits their own ends.

Most of all, a protest that doesn't win public understanding damages the very principle of the right to protest for fair pay and conditions. In doing down the dignity of everyday citizens, it diminishes the case for workers themselves.

Irish Independent

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