Thursday 22 August 2019

We're all paying the price for grotesque influence of public service unions and weaker Government

Repeatedly, the lion's share of the 'fiscal space' went to public service pay at the expense of service improvement and investment in vital infrastructure Photo: PA
Repeatedly, the lion's share of the 'fiscal space' went to public service pay at the expense of service improvement and investment in vital infrastructure Photo: PA
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

In a radio programme to honour Ken Whitaker on his 100th birthday, broadcaster John Bowman played an excerpt from an interview recorded around the year 2000 in which the esteemed public servant set out a defining mark of a functioning democracy and good government.

"The rule of law is an essential guarantee of personal freedom and social order. Lobbies have legitimate functions in protecting and advancing particular interests. But society as a whole cannot be expected to tolerate abuse of their power, particularly by intimidation in any form or defiance of the law of the land," he said.

"It may be unpopular now to praise [former UK prime minister Margaret] Thatcher, but her greatest and enduring legacy was to re-establish the supremacy of government and parliament over sectoral interests. Government and parliament, democratically elected, should never surrender independence of judgment to group or media pressure."

These principles are an apt yardstick against which to assess the performance and integrity of our Government, parliament and politics over the past 12 months, for example, in regard to water charges and the Garda pay deal and consequent outburst of demands for 'accelerated pay restoration'.

Opponents now say there is no democratic support for water charges because "70pc of elected TDs are against them". This may be true, but if we ask why this is so, the answer discredits our politicians. They will need to justify the sharp U-turn from their position back in 2010, when all major parties, including Sinn Féin, supported a single national utility and a system of charges based on consumption.

The answer is that they were all unnerved by the success of Paul Murphy in the Tallaght by-election. Mr Murphy had seized on the totally inept way in which the utility was established and a system of charges imposed. After nearly a decade of austerity, this breath-taking political incompetence became the lightning rod through which people's pent-up anger and frustration with the established parties boiled over into street protests and intimidation of meter installers country-wide.

Overnight, Sinn Féin changed tack, followed by Fianna Fáil. Then the Government caved in, losing all credibility and authority by reducing the level of charges to such a level that the funding of Irish Water would have to remain on the Government's balance sheet, and offering an absurd €100 "conservation grant".

The recent report from the Expert Commission on the Funding of Public Water Services made clear what it considered to be "standard criteria" and "best practice" around the world: "Efficient pricing has a demonstrable effect on water demand…a volumetric charging system based on metering, supported by a well-targeted affordability system, is the approach that is in line with best practice…the basis of charging for water should continue to move away from mixed systems toward a system based on the volume of water used."

However, our reasonable expectations of a water service for Ireland, that reflects "standard criteria" and "best practice", look likely to be betrayed by those politicians whose objections have little to do with specific flaws in these international standards and more to do with fear of losing votes at the next election.

Even the Expert Commission, most of whom knew nothing about Irish politics, adopted an overtly political stance, delivering a set of watered-down recommendations to accommodate this current political situation, instead of offering impartial, objective advice.

'Intimidation' and 'defiance of the law of the land' seem to have won out. Just for example, a letter in the 'Irish Examiner' from a person in Donegal suggested that Irish Water workers might be murderers or con-men, comparable to the Black and Tans, while several TDs refused to obey the law and pay the charges.

The campaign leading up to the eleventh-hour Labour Court deal with gardaí was characterised by misinformation, intimidation in the threat to close down the policing and security apparatus of the State, and a readiness to defy the law of the land. The spin about 'withdrawal of labour' not being a 'strike' won't wash.

The flood of loud demands for 'accelerated pay restoration' that followed the Garda settlement, insisting that 'the money will have to be found, or else', has shone a light on an abuse of power that Irish society as a whole has tolerated for decades. Going back to the infamous Benchmarking deal, continuing through the Bertie Ahern era of successive wage increases far ahead of inflation, and right up to the present day, the supremacy of our democratically elected government and parliament has been compromised by the grotesquely disproportionate influence of powerful public service unions in deciding budgetary policy. In the latter days of Social Partnership, for example, the government and the Dáil were sidelined while ultimately unsustainable, blanket pay increases were made to public service unions in private negotiations, with insufficient regard for the impact on society as a whole.

Repeatedly, the lion's share of the 'fiscal space' went to public service pay at the expense of service improvement and investment in vital infrastructure.

The Lansdowne Road Agreement of April 2015, itself an acceleration of 'pay restoration', conceded at least 30pc of the limited funds that would be available to meet other pressing needs in the October 2015 Budget. This pattern is so embedded and taken for granted as to seem like part of the divine order.

It results in unfairness towards 'society as a whole'.

When a government was finally formed weeks after the general election we were reassured that "the centre has held". The durability of the centre, ensuring the supremacy of government and parliament over sectoral interests and resisting intimidation and defiance of the law of the land, will be severely tested in 2017.

Irish Independent

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