Stephen Collins: some home truths about public sector pay claims

It has not registered that pay rises for public servants mean cuts in services or tax increases

Given the precedents set  by  the Luas drivers and  gardaí, Minister for Public Expenditure  Paschal Donohoe faces a horrendously difficult task in trying to hold the line. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Given the precedents set by the Luas drivers and gardaí, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe faces a horrendously difficult task in trying to hold the line. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The battle over how the limited fruits of the economic recovery should be distributed will be a test not simply of the political system but of the bonds that have held Irish society together through an extremely challenging time.

If the public service unions are allowed by a fragile Government to bully their way to unsustainable pay increases then all of the sacrifices of the past years will have been set to naught and the road cleared for the demagogues itching for political chaos.

The bottom line is that if the substantial public pay increases being sought over and above the Lansdowne Road agreement are conceded them the outcome will be worsening public services for those who need them most or tax increases for already heavily taxed middle-income earners.

The appalling injustice of this was spelled out in a courageous letter to The Irish Times on Thursday from serving public servant Arthur Boland, who put it in a nutshell.

“I have job security, and when I retire I will receive a lump sum and a guaranteed pension. So I am very well off compared to many people working in the private sector and compared to the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed who have to depend on the relatively meagre State benefits to support themselves.”

The blunt facts of the matter are incontrovertible. Public services pay is the biggest item of government spending and accounts for one third of all expenditure.

According to the Central Statistics Office, public service pay is 20 per cent higher than that in the private sector.

Economist John Fitzgerald reckons that even if its is accepted that public servants have higher educational qualifications they are still on average paid 10 per cent more than their private sector counterparts.

And that is before pensions and job security are taken into account.

Despite this the public service unions are managing to successfully portray their members as the most serious victims of the economic crisis who deserve pay “restoration” in full.

Facts don’t matter

Its seems that just as in the Brexit referendum in the UK or the Donald Trump election campaign in the United States, facts don’t matter.

If something is repeated often enough and loudly enough it is taken to be true by those who have a vested interest in its acceptance or those gullible enough to be swayed by the empty rhetoric.

The Government’s attempt to hold the line has not been helped by the way it capitulated to the claim for a special pay increase for gardaí following a Labour Court recommendation. That opened the floodgates to similar claims right across the public service.

It is arguable that the problem goes back to the concessions to Luas drivers before the summer when the weak-acting administration failed to take a decisive line.

The Government’s get-out clause on that was that Luas drivers are not public servants but employed by a private company. However, as the Luas system only survives because of a State subsidy the knock-on impact on the public service should have been obvious from day one.

The politician now standing in the gap is Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe. Given the precedents set by the Luas drivers and gardaí, he faces a horrendously difficult task in trying to hold the line. Yet if he fails the consequences for the country will be devastating.

Donohoe has struggled so far to get his message across that capitulation to the union demands will result in serious cuts to public services. In all of the heat and noise generated in the media by the various pay claims that simple fact has barely registered with the public.

Standing in for the Taoiseach at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Thursday, Donohoe showed just how competent he is, putting on a calm and impressive display in his first outing in the hottest seat in politics.

Concessions

The performance demonstrated that he could be a real contender for the leadership of Fine Gael when it arises, but only if he manages to come through the public pay storm without making unsustainable concessions.

It is difficult to know how much of the union rhetoric is posturing for position before pay talks next year, and how much reflects serious intent to go all the way to strike action in pursuit of what they want.

If it is the latter then Donohoe’s nerve will be tested to the limit. When key public servants like gardaí, doctors and nurses go on strike the public tends to blame the government of the day rather than the strikers for the disruption.

To have any chance of holding his ground Donohoe needs to take the fight to his opponents, and convince the public that he is standing for the common good against selfish vested interests.

He also needs to convince union leaders that he is not going to buckle under pressure.

The biggest danger to his position may well come from lily-livered Cabinet colleagues whose instinct may be to settle with the unions rather than confront the challenges facing their individual departments and the potential fallout in negative publicity for themselves.

One important advantage Donohoe has going for him is that despite a little point scoring from some Fianna Fáil frontbenchers, party leader Micheál Martin continues to back the Lansdowne Road Agreement, and this week called for a national reality check in the wake of Brexit and Trump.

If Donohoe can persuade his Cabinet colleagues to hold their nerve and Martin sticks to his position, the much-derided “new politics” might deliver after all.

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