Former WRC chief calls for return to social partnership

Ireland faces challenge from ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit and Trump, Kieran Mulvey says

Kieran Mulvey: demands for ministerial intervention in disputes represents “shallow thinking”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Kieran Mulvey: demands for ministerial intervention in disputes represents “shallow thinking”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Following his retirement last year as the head of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), Kieran Mulvey is no longer the State’s most senior industrial relations troubleshooter. But as he adjusts to the private sector and a new role as chairman of the Adare Human Resources Management consultancy, he is more exercised than ever about the plethora of challenges facing Ireland.

Mulvey believes the uncertainty caused by the “perfect storm” of issues such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president means the Government, industry and unions should consider a return to the full-blown social partnership model that featured during the boom era.

“Now is the time we dance with history. I don’t think we have fully thought through the significance of these things for our country,” he said.

“A return of social partnership? I think the potential [effects on Ireland] of Brexit may require that kind of uniformity of view. We need to balance the challenges facing us. Brexit is the great unknown – in terms of impact, it will be akin to the decision to enter Europe in the first place in 1973.”

Mulvey retired from the WRC last June after 25 years as the State’s highest-profile honest broker when it came to resolving the bitterest of industrial disputes. This month he took over as chairman of Adare, which is headquartered in Dublin and recently expanded with an office in Shannon.

Perspective

“I needed to spend six or nine months away before I could take up such a major role. I will chair the board, and work on strategy and bring perspective.”

He says he will have “some availability” to advise clients of Adare, which is run by its founder, Derek McKay, “but I won’t be representing clients in disputes before the WRC or Labour Court. That would not be appropriate. I’ll be more behind the scenes.”

Back to the bigger picture, and Mulvey is concerned for Ireland when he looks at what is happening to the European Union and how the bloc is shaping up to deal with Brexit.

“The EU is not some kind of united football team. Germany and France will decide what is good for Europe. They have always done that. But when I see clique meetings, I get worried.”

He said Ireland needed to play “hardball” with the rest of Europe at the April 29th Brexit summit of EU leaders.

“The issues facing Ireland are not the same as those facing the other European countries. It’s vital our leader is on the EU’s negotiating team. I’d be fearful of negotiations being led by other countries with their own internal difficulties.”

Closer to home, Mulvey believes the clamour in various parts of the public sector for restoration of pay and conditions is creating difficulties because there are “too many differentials” at play.

“We need a pay round across the public sector. It could be 2 per cent – it depends on the constraints of the public finances – but it would give an element of certainty into the future for the public-sector pay bill.”

Productivity

Mulvey does not believe the payment should be directly linked to productivity increases: “The productivity reforms are going on anyway, regardless. They must happen anyway.”

He rejects the idea that this would have a knock-on effect in the private sector, pushing up wages for employers who have no say in public sector pay talks.

“The public sector is not creating the trend [for wage rises]. Many private-sector employers will raise pay this year by 2.2-2.4 per cent or more.”

When he was a public servant, Mulvey was rarely shy about saying what he believed needed to be said. Now that he is in the private sector, he is even less reticent. In the context of the worsening climate of industrial relations in the public transport sector, Mulvey accused opposition politicians of “bandwagoning” by calling for Minister for Transport Shane Ross to intervene in disputes.

“I have never been an advocate of ministerial intervention. But it actually upsets me to see the Opposition demanding that Ministers get involved. It’s shallow thinking. Legislators pass laws, they create institutions such as the WRC. Then at the first sign of difficulty, they want to rush out and get a Minister.”

‘Soundbite’

Mulvey accused them of doing so “for a soundbite” and of contributing “nothing” to a solution.

“It’s jumping on the bandwagon. They want to be seen to be on the side of the poor and oppressed workers, even though a lot of them aren’t poor, and they certainly aren’t oppressed.”

As the chairman of Sport Ireland and a trustee of human rights group Front Line Defenders, on top of his new role at Adare, Mulvey appears to be as busy as he ever was before.

“Do I miss the buzz of the WRC? Not really. Back then, you could carry the burden of all the various disputes around with you. But I am still busy. As friend of mine said to me recently: ‘I thought you were retired, but I was mistaken.’”

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