Nurses strike: Union and Government relieved when 'Mr Fix-it' stepped in

Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley is the quiet man of Ireland's industrial relations

Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley: very protective of the institution as the “court of last resort”. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley: very protective of the institution as the “court of last resort”. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

For 30 years, Kevin Foley has been “the quiet man” of Ireland’s industrial relations, serving for much of that time alongside the more flamboyant Kieran Mulvey.

During that time, Foley has resolved many of the country’s most bitter disputes including those in the Garda Síochána, the ESB, Irish Ferries and Aer Lingus.

But unlike Mulvey, Foley operates away from the glare of publicity.

“Mulvey is a political animal and as head of the [Labour Relations] Commission, he was essentially the ‘front of house man’, explaining protracted disputes to an increasingly angry and bemused public,” said one senior union official.

“Foley is a totally different beast and will go out of his way to avoid cameras or microphones.”

Mulvey himself describes Foley as an “affable man” who has the ability to call it as he sees it.

It is an indication of the esteem in which he is held by employers and unions alike that both the nurses and the Government heaved a sigh of relief this week when they heard that chairman of the Labour Court Foley, or “Mr Fix-It” as he is known, was to preside over their seemingly intractable pay and staffing dispute.

“At some stage in a dispute, you have to confront the parties and Kevin wouldn’t be found wanting in that regard. There’s no sentiment in industrial relations and you have to be able to bang the table when required,” says Mulvey.

Another serial user of the Labour Court and commission agrees with Mulvey that Foley is adept at allowing the parties to vent for a while, before homing in on the key aspects of a dispute, around which he will delicately carve out a resolution.

‘Great listener’

“He is a great listener but he does not suffer fools gladly. He’s a big man with a strong presence and he can use that when he wants to. Mulvey and Kevin acted as a type of tag team, good-cop-bad-cop-style routine, shuttling between the management side in one room and the union side in another.”

One official, who has sat opposite him on many occasions over the past 30 years, said that he lets you know in no uncertain terms when you have over-egged the pudding.

He’s very direct because he knows his stuff but he doesn’t raise hostilities and uses his sense of humour to dampen down any potential flash points, said the official.

Mulvey sees Foley’s work, along with that of Anna Perry, now director of conciliation at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), as key to persuading the unions and the Government, to finally accept the Lansdowne Road Agreement after public service unions voted to reject the initial planned successor to the Croke Park accord in 2013.

Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley: an “affable man” who has the ability to call it as he sees it. Photograph: Eric Luke
Labour Court chairman Kevin Foley: an “affable man” who has the ability to call it as he sees it. Photograph: Eric Luke

“Given the country was struggling out of a deep recession, the cost of failure was high. So this was a huge risk for me and the commission. But Kevin and Anna did immense work to get it over the line,” says the former director general of the WRC.

Mulvey hoped that Foley would succeed him as head of the newly established WRC but says that it was Kevin’s choice to move to the Labour Court.

A Dubliner by birth whose family hails from Cork, Foley is in his late 50s, married with a daughter and lives in south county Dublin. Enthusiastic about GAA, he is active in his local club, Kilmacud Crokes. Surprisingly, as one colleague remarked, he showed some promise as an actor in his days in UCD.

Musical chairs

Foley moved from the commission to the more august Labour Court as deputy chairman in March 2015. A little over a year later, he was chosen from an open competition to replace Kevin Duffy as chairman.

Foley’s appointment also broke a long-held tradition of musical chairs where the employers and the unions took turns to nominate their person to the top job in the court – a nomination which was duly rubber-stamped by the Government.

Unlike his predecessors, Foley is a career civil servant, and jealously guards that independence from union, employer or government bias.

One colleague noted that Foley is very protective of the Labour Court as the “court of last resort”. “He hates people using the court as a stepping stone to wrangle a better deal or scramble up to the high moral ground,” the colleague said.

In a rare public address at an Industrial Relations News conference two years ago, the chairman said the court was not “some institution with a never-ending supply of fairy dust that’s going to make things that are bad, all better”.

Under fire

That proved to be a prophetic remark as, months later, Foley was understood to be seething after the Labour Court came under fire after issuing a recommendation in the 2016 Garda pay dispute.

The recommendation was costed at €50 million and some in Government circles let it be known that they were “surprised” that the court had sanctioned such a large amount of taxpayers’ money.

What the Government failed to “let it be known” was that it had already sanctioned €30 million to settle the dispute and Government officials were in attendance at the Labour Court hearing.

All industrial relations practitioners, or at least those outside Government circles, felt the court was unfairly scapegoated, even though, at the 11th hour, it had rescued the Government from a highly damaging strike by gardaí.

No doubt the Garda pay dispute was uppermost in Foley’s mind when he sat down with the nurses and Government last Tuesday. He wasn’t going to be scapegoated again and he wasn’t.