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Diarmaid Ferriter: Ross on the doss is no keeper of Lemass flame

Minister is wrong: former taoiseach was a hard-working, interventionist politician

Minister Shane Ross is on the doss. Worse than that, he is distorting history in order to justify his indolence. He has piously insisted he will not intervene in the Bus Éireann dispute because he wishes to honour the legacy of Seán Lemass, who established new industrial relations machinery in 1946: "We should not undo his measured work and later, subsequent reforms. Accordingly, we should avoid embroiling Ministers in resolving industrial relations issues that would cut across the respective roles of the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court."

Lemass proposed the creation of workers' councils so that unions and employers could combine to improve industrial management and performance

The Labour Court was indeed set up at the behest of Lemass as a novel attempt to regulate worker-employer disputes, with trade union co-operation. Fianna Fáil had deliberately, from its earliest days, targeted trade union and working class support and did so very successfully. Lemass also proposed the creation of workers' councils so that unions and employers could combine to improve industrial management and performance.

When one of Lemass's biographers, John Horgan, interviewed Tadgh O Cearbhaill, a former secretary of the Department of Labour, he remarked on Lemass's positive relations with the trade unions because "he would consult widely". He also described him as "godmother" of the reunification of the divided trade union movement in 1959 into the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This allowed Lemass to resuscitate some of the ideas of social partnership he had mooted in the 1940s.

Another Lemass biographer, Tom Garvin, observes, "he never abandoned the proposition that workers and employers were on the same side, despite appearances, and he was very much open to worker participation in management".



Lemass looms large in relation to the origins of social partnership, as observed by UCD's Professor of Industrial Relations Bill Roche. He supported centralised pay bargaining and brokered national pay agreements in 1948, 1957 and 1964. He sought to extend industrial relations reform and invited trade union leaders to join newly created institutions such as the National Industrial and Economic Council.

That did not mean there were no failures along the way; there were many rows over incomes policy and the continued determination of unions to pursue sectional pay bargaining. Lemass was often ruthless and was no saint when it came to his dealing with trade unions. He continued to criticise what he viewed as the lack of cohesion and authority in the trade union movement, but he also gave the first ever address by a taoiseach to a conference of the ITGWU.

Historians differ as to whether he dragged unions towards modernity or was more focused on achieving hegemony over them, but a crucial point, in Roche's words, was that "he envisaged an active role for the State in pay determination". He was "an effective mediator and broker" and also, in the long run, brought the Department of the Taoiseach into the area of industrial relations, well after the creation of the Labour Court.


Roche’s conclusion about all this is one Ross should be aware of: “In reading Lemass’s papers, it is quite startling that so much – especially so much that would eventually come to pass – could emanate from the mind and imagination of a single politician in an age without think-tanks, expert advisers and all the associated paraphernalia of the modern political and administrative world.”

It is deeply ironic that Ross on the doss would justify his aloofness on the back of the legacy and initiatives of a hard-working, interventionist politician. Ross is very vocal about what he will not or should not do. What about what he has said he will do? His ministerial Statement of Strategy eventually appeared in December 2016 and it promised a full review of public transport. It also declared his “immediate priority is managing the many day-to-day issues facing the transport, tourism and sport sectors . . . our transport system is a crucial component in sustaining and stimulating the economy as well as being a major factor in reducing economic disparities in differing parts of the country.

For Ross on the doss, privilege seems to conveniently trump responsibility

“My department is committed to successfully managing the many issues affecting our transport network and also to ensuring that we have a vision for the future, and that much needed longer term plans, which will develop and expand out transport network on the ground . . . can be confidently brought to fruition.”

Such devotion, however, does not include trying to end a dispute that is centrally relevant to those transport aims. On Monday morning, a Bus Éireann driver on the picket line reasonably suggested that if Ross devoted as much time to industrial disputes as he did to jumping up and down about the reopening of the Garda station in Stepaside, the driver might not be on the picket line at all.

In Ross’s own words, “Serving as a Minister in Government is a huge privilege as well as an enormous responsibility.” For Ross on the doss, privilege seems to conveniently trump responsibility. He is no keeper of the flame of Lemass.