Government needs to win back the support of workers
Coalition keen to repeal unpopular powers from the crisis
Last May, then tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore told the country’s largest public service union, Impact, that he looked forward to the day when the financial emergency legislation was abolished. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Since the onset of the economic crisis, first the Fianna Fáil-Green Party administration and subsequently the current Government introduced legislation to give themselves emergency powers to push through a number of controversial measures.These included pay cuts for hundreds of thousands of staff across the public service.
Yesterday the Cabinet agreed to proposals put forward by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin to begin the process of repealing some of these emergency powers. The first step will be to delete what is technically known as section 2B of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Fempi) Act 2009.
This provision was put in place in 2013, essentially as a big stick which the Government could hold over public service trade unions at a time when their members were considering the Haddington Road agreement on public pay and productivity. Securing this agreement was hugely important for the Government both from financial and political perspectives. Its measures were aimed at generating savings of about €1 billion on the Government’s public service pay bill over three years.
However union members had earlier rejected its predecessor deal, the so-called Croke Park II accord. Facing the potential of serious industrial unrest across the public service which could have caused considerable political difficulties, particularly in the Labour Party, a less severe deal was brokered in talks involving the Labour Relations Commission. However, at this stage union members still had to vote on these proposals.
The provision in the financial emergency legislation would have allowed public service employers to deliver savings by putting in place more stringent measures in relation to non-core pay and working hours than the terms set out in the Haddington Road proposals.
Ultimately, unions – apart from the Irish Hospital Consultants Association – backed the Haddington Road proposals in ballots of members so it was not necessary to use the big stick, although its role in persuading staff to vote for the accord remains a matter of debate.
The Government’s decision yesterday to begin discarding its financial emergency powers did not come as a surprise. Last May the then tánaiste Eamon Gilmore told the country’s largest public service union, Impact, at its conference that the next time the Government discussed pay with its staff representatives, it would be with a view to increasing, not cutting, wages. He specifically said he looked forward to the day when the financial emergency legislation was abolished.
It is understood that the Government was anxious that the financial emergency legislation be wound down in a controlled manner. A big fear was that a court could rule that the financial emergency legislation was no longer valid given the surge in the economy – a recovery which in other contexts Government Ministers have been strongly proclaiming.
Further steps in this area are likely to be taken by the Government next year. Public service unions are expected to lodge claims for a pay rise next spring.