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Pay pact is not a done deal – get ready for strikes

THE Japanese have Kabuki – an ancient, highly-ritualised form of theatre. In this country we have our own Irish version of Kabuki, in the form of the national pay talks.

The participants spend several weeks in an elaborate preliminary will-we, won't-we phase. This is then followed by an intense phase of all-night discussions complete with the obligatory walk-outs.

The hoped-for culmination is that after all of the hiccups, the members of the individual unions eventually vote in favour of the deal and everyone lives happily, if not quite ever after, then at least until the next such deal needs to be negotiated.

In truth pay talks aren't what they used to be when King Bertie was in his pomp.



The private sector employers bolted years ago. Even for the public sector, such talks are no longer about wage increases but cuts. Now the main subject for discussion is how to spread the pain in the most equitable manner.

With the Croke Park deal now having just over a year to run and the EU/ECB/IMF Troika keeping our feet to the fire on further spending cuts, the Government is desperate to negotiate a successor arrangement.

By complete coincidence, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn is in Dublin this week.

While Olli is ostensibly visiting Ireland to meet with the Oireachtas Finance Committee, he will no doubt be keeping at least one eye on the proceedings at Lansdowne House.

At almost €17bn, public sector pay and pensions is the second-largest item of Government spending.

A €1bn cut forms a central plank of the Government's strategy to reduce the budget deficit to 3pc of GDP by 2015.

So will the Government get the deal it wants? It might not be a good idea to bet on it.

While the "big two" public sector trade unions, SIPTU and IMPACT, theoretically have the votes to ram through a public sector pay deal on their own, there is no disguising the deep antipathy felt by many public sector trade unionists.

Already four trade unions, the Irish Medical Organisation, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the Civil and Public Services Union (CPSU) and UNITE, have walked out.

Meanwhile the gardai, whose representatives are not trade unions, picketed the talks from which they were excluded and last Friday staged what amounted to a work-to-rule.

What are the chances of imposing major pay cuts and changes to work practices on the health service when both the doctors and nurses have walked out of the talks?

The Government will almost certainly experience similarly difficulty implementing wage cuts and changes to work practices on the gardai.

Similarly the opposition of the CPSU, which represents most lower-paid clerical workers in the public service, does not bode well.

Even if the big battalions in the form of SIPTU and IMPACT use their muscle to force through a new deal, will it be worth the paper it's written on?

What is the likelihood of the smaller unions and their members meekly adhering to a deal negotiated by their larger brethren?



Far more likely, even if such a deal is voted through by the big two, is that the Government will be forced to follow up on its threat to impose wage cuts and changes in working practices by legislation in large parts of the public sector.

Such legislation will in turn almost certainly trigger widespread strikes and other forms of disruption throughout the public sector.

This will quickly undermine the rationale for Croke Park II – the avoidance of public sector strikes.

It turns out that, unlike in Kabuki, the outcome of Irish pay talks isn't always pre-ordained.