Analysis: Garda strike threat remains and could still blow up
Significant number in GRA executive wanted to reject Labour Court recommendation
Armed Garda checkpoint on Friday: GRA members turned up for work, but it is far from clear if they will vote to accept the latest deal. Photograph: Padraig O’Reilly
There was much puffing and panting and edgy pacing up and down the corridors. It was coming up to 9pm on Thursday and Garda ‘top brass’ had decamped to the force’s Dublin headquarters at Harcourt Square.
With the first strike in the history of the force set to start 10 hours later, this was to be the nerve centre. It felt more like the nervous centre. In the end, the industrial relations crisis was defused; just about, and late into the eleventh hour. But make no mistake: it was primed, moved into position and ready to explode. And it may still do so.
The Garda Representative Association (GRA) and Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) have emerged with plenty to show for their efforts, extra remuneration worth over €6,000 a year per member, along with access to the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court.
That latter concession alone is groundbreaking for associations banned from being trade unions and not even afforded the trappings of unions despite years of campaigning.
When the history of these associations is written, the GRA and AGSI negotiators will be seen as trailblazers who faced down the Government and Garda Headquarters and won.
However, while AGSI members are expected to accept the deal offered, the GRA appears to be more fractured.
Its central executive was extremely divided on Thursday morning when the association urged its members in 18 key units – from passport control to anti-gang units – to make themselves available for work on Friday.
That concession on the part of the Garda – one that had been sought last month by Garda Headquarters – rescued senior Garda management on the eve of disaster after their own contingency planning failed.
One GRA camp accused others of making concessions without consultation. They were incensed. Those who had done so insisted that HQ had made clear that martial law was on the agenda if they did not offer extra numbers.
However, reliable sources have said many of the estimated 800 rank and file gardaí affected by the concession would have ignored the GRA request and not turned up for work had the strike gone ahead.
Faced with the Labour Court’s recommendation on Thursday evening , a significant number in the GRA executive wanted to reject it. Eventually they decided on postponement and a ballot of members.
The executive’s split and internal arguing points to a fractured camp. And it is far from clear if the membership will vote to accept the offer.
The GRA and AGSI were able to drive such a hard bargain for one reason: they did not buckle in the face of Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan’s order to report for duty.
According to multiple well placed sources, almost everyone ignored the order. Only “a handful here and there”, as one source put it, said they would make themselves available.
Late on Thursday, Garda HQ had 300 senior officers and 950 student gardaí listed for duty, along with the 200 members of the Emergency Response Unit and Regional Support Units. And that was it.
On the face of it, Commissioner O’Sullivan’s authority has been undermined, even if the row was not caused by her and could not be fixed by her since it depended on the State’s purse-strings.
Such dissent could not have been imagined during the eras of some of her predecessors. However, men like Noel Conroy and Fachtna Murphy – while both affable and politically astute – were boom time commissioners.
They ran the Garda when investment was made in the force, more personnel than ever were hired, wages increased and overtime flowed. Martin Callinan presided as the good times turned bad.
During his term, the whistleblower controversies relating to penalty points being terminated and other issues emerged and were botched and they brought him down.
The wider economy has improved in the 2½ years O’Sullivan has been in charge but, while Garda recruitment has begun again, money is still very tight.
Meanwhile, the frustration felt at the slow rate of reforms and the claimed poor levels of co-operation with the Garda Ombudsman began with Callinan and have crystallised under O’Sullivan; as they were always going to over time.
And the whistleblower allegations have simply refused to go away.
O’Sullivan and her senior team dodged a deadly bullet this week. Halfway through her term of office, she commands a Garda Síochána that has a bigger budget. She will be hoping things can improve now.
Above all else, she will pray the GRA and AGSI ballots approve the deal now on the table and that the risk of the first ever Garda strike happening on her watch is put to bed.