A doomed public service pay deal?

If Lansdowne Road Agreement still stands, then it rests on much weaker foundations

 

The threat of the State’s first all-out strike by Garda members has been lifted - for now. Strike action has been suspended by both Garda bodies, but not yet abandoned as a tactical negotiating option. Members of the Garda Representative Association (GRA) and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) will take that decision when they vote on the Labour Court’s recommendations to settle this dispute.

The court has made an offer the GRA and AGSI will clearly find hard to refuse; but one the taxpayer will find equally hard to afford, as other public sector unions seek similar treatment, and press for similar concessions. Already the court’s proposals to resolve this dispute have prompted four other unions - representing nurses and public service employees - to press follow-on pay claims of their own.

If, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said, the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA) still stands, then it rests on much weaker and less secure foundations than a week ago. Realistically, the price of settling the Garda pay dispute may well come at the expense of the survival of the LRA. Its flexibility has now been stretched close to breaking point.

One possible outcome is for a period of serious industrial unrest in the public sector, with worrying implications for the economy, and for the 2017 budget estimates. There, €290 million was provided for under the terms of the LRA. That figure, however, does not include the €30 million cost of the proposals which the GRA rejected earlier this week.

The Labour Court has amended and enhanced these original proposals, added new measures and further improved some benefits. This further raises the overall financial cost of settling the dispute. It also sets a headline for other public sector unions to follow, which presents a major problem for the Government.

The universal nature of some benefits - those applying to all gardaí - suggests that these are really thinly disguised pay rises, rather than benefits directed at those who most need them. Why should a special €15 premium payment per annual leave day be offered to all gardaí - regarded as potentially having to attend court hearings at short notice - when clearly only some gardaí will be required to do so.

For the Garda bodies, uncertainty remains. Will their leadership advise their members to accept the Labour Court awards? That is unclear. They should do so. For the minority Government, the challenge it faces is how to rescue what seems like a doomed public service pay agreement.

The high cost involved in settling one problem - assuming the Garda pay dispute is resolved - has made it even harder for a weak government to fight and win public service pay battles on a much wider front. Nevertheless, the Government must take a firm stand in defending the LRA - it may well fall in doing so - and put the wider national interest before its own political survival.