‘I became committed to the socialist transformation of society very young’

Jack O’Connor has devoted his life to the union cause and says he has no regrets about the sacrifices that has involved

Jack O’Connor greets me as I step out of the lift on the 15th floor of Siptu’s headquarters at Liberty Hall and tells me to hang a right into his office. “I’ve been going right all my life,” he jokes

The truth is actually quite the opposite. O'Connor has been a lifelong Labour Party member and has devoted his career to the trade union movement. He's been a paid official of Siptu or its predecessor unions for 34 years and was a volunteer for six years before that. Siptu is the country's biggest trade union, with two-thirds of its more than 200,000 members working in the private sector.

On the morning we met, the Government had just published its public service reform plan out to 2016. “I haven’t seen the details yet so I’m at a disadvantage,” he says. “Of course the word ‘reform’ is used to cover a multitude. It usually means anything but.”

O’Connor wasn’t directly involved in the Croke Park II or Haddington Road talks last year, designed to achieve savings of €1 billion a year for the State on the public sector pay bill, although he is “blamed for them all of the time”.


He did recommend them to his membership as the “best strategy to defend pay in terms of employment and public services”. Croke Park II was rejected but members eventually accepted the revised Haddington Road deal.

O’Connor argues that the lot of public servants would have been much worse when the EU-IMF Troika came to town in late 2010 were it not for the original Croke Park deal with the Government.

“They [the Troika] would have driven a coach and four through the public service here as we know it, as they did in Greece and Portugal,” he insists, tapping the mahogany-coloured table in his slightly dated office.

He bristles at the notion that he and other senior trade union leaders in Ireland simply rolled over in 2009 when the economy crashed and the Government initially went looking for pay cuts. “In the immediate aftermath of the first pay cuts, we in this union proposed that there would be a national ballot for a mandate for industrial action across the economy on an employer-by-employer basis,” he explains.

“Irrespective of if they were public or private sector. With a view to reinstating the [national wage] agreement, which had been breached by both the private and public service employers, or an acceptable alternative. That approach was actually agreed at the executive council of Congress [the ICTU] in February 2009 but quite a number of unions didn’t follow through on it.

“Some did but didn’t ultimately succeed in winning the ballots. We carried our ballots here as did a number of others. Our emphasis would have been on securing a different balance. We argued that one-sided austerity wouldn’t work and that there was a requirement to match it with initiatives to promote growth, particularly growth in domestic demand.”

O’Connor has argued consistently against austerity and opposed the bank guarantee of September 2008. Yet he never advocated burning bondholders.

“The bank guarantee was the worst decision that was made in my lifetime. But subsequently I did not agree that we could burn bondholders and all the rest and I argued publicly that to do so would be to play Russian roulette with the lives of virtually all the people in the country with a very real prospect that it could turn out to be a one-way ticket to the Stone Age.”

He would have preferred a limited guarantee “for such banks as might have been considered sustainable”.

Which ones? "AIB and Bank of Ireland maybe." Permanent TSB? "Not necessarily. Maybe Permanent TSB. Anglo Irish Bank and [Irish] Nationwide and so on were in a different space."

Fine Gael and the Labour Party came to power in spring 2011 promising a different agenda to get the country moving again.

Many Labour voters feel let down by the party’s acquiescence in Government to property tax and water charges, and cuts to various benefits and services: measures that directly affect the lives of the workers that O’Connor and Siptu aim to protect.

In a speech to Labour’s conference in November, O’Connor said the “distribution of the burden” had been made a “great deal fairer” as a result of Labour’s involvement in Government.

Really? “The Labour Party found itself in a space where it didn’t have a mandate to lead a government. They could have looked to their own interest and stayed out. They went into Government in a minority position, to do their best,” he says.

He argues that if Fine Gael had implemented its own manifesto, there would have been an additional €1.8 billion to €2 billion in cuts, and at a quicker pace.

“If you are in a position to prevent €2 billion from being robbed from the people who can least afford it in the country . . . do you do that?”he says.

Fair enough but what about the cuts that have been implemented? “It’s a repudiation of everything I’ve stood for throughout my life. But the fact is that the choice that the Labour Party was faced with in February 2011 was between standing back and allowing €2 billion more of misery being inflicted on working people, and people who depend on public services, or trying to prevent that in the knowledge that it would be excruciating. It’s a case of doing what you can in the worst of circumstances.”

O’Connor does not claim to hold a monopoly on wisdom and readily accepts that trade unions made mistakes during the boom but he is certain about the root cause of Ireland’s current economic woes.

“The biggest single omission on the part of the trade-union movement, which I regard as unforgivable, was that we failed to alert our members, and society in general, to the threat posed by the PD [Progressive Democrats] agenda in 1997,” he says, sitting forward in his chair for emphasis. “We allowed a small group of people promoting an unbridled free-market agenda to grab the balance of power.”

O'Connor's says the key turning point in Ireland's recent history was the 1997 general election, which resulted in the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left rainbow coalition being replaced by a Fianna Fáil-PD axis, led by Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney.

The rainbow handed over an exchequer surplus and an economy that had found its stride. "Despite my high regard for Dick Spring, Labour made the drastic mistake of not going back into government in 1994 with Fianna Fáil [after Labour's coalition with the Albert Reynolds-led administration had collapsed]. I think that was probably the most serious mistake we [Labour] made since 1918, when it decided not to contest the election.

“Nothing we did or failed to do in the subsequent years compares in terms of the importance of failing to intervene in that election to alert people to the threat posed by the PDs. If the result had been otherwise, Eircom would not have been privatised, the sales of ACC, the ICC and TSB banks would not have occurred and the look-the-other way regulator culture would not have developed unimpeded because the Labour Party here never became a Blairite party. The election was lost by about 2,000 votes.”

O’Connor accepts unions lost their ability to organise in the boom years and argues that the various national wage deals from 1987 resulted in them losing touch with memberships. “Because the connection between trade unions in the abstract and union members diminishes. The bargaining is conducted at such a remote level.”

Last month, Labour Relations Commission chairman Kieran Mulvey suggested that a pent-up demand for pay increases would begin to emerge as the economy continues to recover. Would O'Connor support a new national pay deal?

“It’s not going to happen,” he says. “I’m not out there campaigning for it.”

Why? “I don’t believe it’s going to happen until such time as the people who really determine public policy at the level of the Government and employers are confronted with a wage explosion. They will continue to take a chance that it won’t happen.”

He believes Ireland has too many trade unions and is involved in a project to create efficiencies, including the development of the Nevin Institute as a “properly resourced” entity, the setting up of a “workers college to challenge the hegemony of the other side in the cultivation of ideas” and the creation of a “proper media platform” to communicate its ideas.

“It is too difficult to co-ordinate policy across so many entities. But the project which is envisaged is not based on the proposition that unions would be forced to merge.”

Raised in Lusk, Dublin, O’Connor now lives near Naas, Kildare. He met his wife Paula through the union and they have three children, the youngest a 17-year-old daughter. “ I’ve been very lucky with my family. I benefitted from the fact that Paula completely understood the nature of the work and the life that it is. She has been enormously supportive to me.”

He readily admits that his wife raised their children because of his commitment to work. “I wasn’t there for most of their big occasions or anything like that. They never objected. It was the norm in our house.”

Does O’Connor – 57 next week – regret that? “What I hope to be able to say when it’s all over, is that I became committed to the socialist transformation of society very young. A lot of people on the left would see me as having reneged on that commitment. I never reneged on it, ever.

“I’m still as committed to it as I was when I was 14 or 15. If I had to choose between my responsibilities to the labour movement and to working people, and any other responsibility, that comes first. I’ve no regrets about that.”

Word up Jack O'Connor on...
Replacing David Begg as general secretary of Ictu when he steps down
It won't be me. I made a commitment here [to serve as Siptu president until 2018]. I like to think that I've honoured all my commitments to people collectively and individually. It's my intention to stick with that.

His €108,385 annual salary
I know that's a very good salary. But a couple of things: when the officer board I took over with came into office, our salary was 18.6 per cent less than the people before us. That came about as a result of a campaign I led. During the crisis we have applied pay reductions of 16 per cent. Everyone here has accepted a reduction in pension entitlement of 40 per cent. Those are never commented upon.

A merger of the left in politics
I despair of the left and the degree to which we indulge in this political cannibalism. There's a poverty of ambition on the left. They don't believe we can shift the agenda or provide an alternative government or the majority party. As a consequence, we engage in all this divisiveness.

Sinn Féin
I have great regard for a lot of people in Sinn Féin. I hold Gerry Adams in very high regard. I'd go as far as to say he's a truly great man when you look closely at what he has achieved and where he's led people. I'm not suggesting he's done everything right but you measure a political leader in the round. Sinn Féin is essentially a national liberation movement. There are a lot of good, selfless people in it, including many socialists. But it is not a socialist party and it could ultimately go either way as all national liberation movements do.

Never flying with anti-union Ryanair
It's vigorously hostile to people's right to organise and engage in collective bargaining. As long as that prevails I would never fly with them.

Ireland's exit from the bailout
It's better that we're not reliant on the Troika, especially given its economic and ideological outlook. The exit is only important in the sense that it affords us the opportunity to build a sustainable society.

The future of Liberty Hall, after An Bord Pleanála rejected plans to build a 22-storey replacement costing €60 million
It's in a bad state of repair. We can do nothing with this building other than reinstate it. We won't be leaving.

His likely legacy
I don't really care what people say about me. My legacy will be decided by the strength of the union as it stands on the day that I leave. I've been most fortunate to be well paid to so something I believe in very passionately.

Ciarán Hancock

Ciarán Hancock

Ciarán Hancock is Business Editor of The Irish Times