How ESB deal was done, with secret talks in Mullingar and Naas
Heat was on in secret talks to reach accord
The endgame started on Thursday, when Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte (above) asked the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) to intervene. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons.
The two sides in the ESB dispute held tentative talks at the company’s head office early last week, but made little headway. The endgame started on Thursday, when Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte asked the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) to intervene.
Management quickly agreed to talks facilitated by the commission but the ESB group of unions, led by Brendan Ogle, initially did not respond.
The ESB declined to comment yesterday on the talks. Ogle, however, said that on Thursday night, shortly after Rabbitte called the LRC, the unions sent a query to ESB management, led by chief executive Pat O’Doherty.
“We said if €1.5 billion is the maximum actuarial deficit that could end up on the ESB’s balance sheet, what was the minimum? Our advice was that there was a range. We did not get an answer, so at that point, we agreed to the talks” said Ogle.
On Friday, the LRC dispatched Kevin Foley, its director of conciliation, and Anna Perry, his deputy, to the Mullingar Park Hotel. Ogle led the unions’ negotiating team, which also included an actuary hired to advise the officials. The ESB sent a group led by Paul Mulvaney, its head of distribution and customer services. The location of the meeting was kept secret.
Late on Friday evening, the LRC asked the unions if their actuary would meet with the scheme’s actuary the following day. The unions agreed, and most of the two negotiating teams stayed over in the hotel.
The following day, the two actuaries met to thrash out the balance sheet issue. A report was produced by the unions’s actuary following the meeting, “It said the range was between €369 million and €1.5 billion,” according to Ogle.
The tension began to ratchet up on Sunday. The following day, O’Doherty was due to file an affidavit with the High Court as part of ESB’s defence against a legal action taken against it by four workers over the scheme. The fear was that, in defending the company’s position, the ESB could become entrenched – bound by whatever position O’Doherty laid out in his affidavit. This could have scuppered the LRC talks. The unions were also anxious to avoid a trip to the Labour Court, should the LRC process fail. The heat was on to reach a resolution on the Sunday. As Ogle put it: “Everybody upped the ante.”
The parties reconvened at 11am in the Killashee House Hotel in Naas. All sides met for what Ogle described as a “very heated session” focusing on the figures in the actuary’s report. The two sides failed to reach agreement and the talks broke at 1.30pm.
The LRC put both sides into different rooms, and shuttled between them. According to Ogle, “something changed” in the company’s negotiating position. At 3.30pm, Foley came from meeting the ESB and put the wording of a potential settlement to the union team. Shortly afterwards, Foley and Perry brought both sides back into the same room. “We signed it, we shook hands, and we said it was over,” recalled Ogle.