A step too far: strike action and An Garda Síochána

An unqualified right to strike would pose questions about the State’s ability to maintain law and order

Members of An Garda Síochána have never regarded themselves – or been seen by the public – as ordinary workers. In addition to their anti-subversive obligations in protecting the State, they have been entrusted with powers of arrest and detention in regulating the behaviour of citizens and upholding the law. Because of its civil war origins, members take an oath not to join a political party or an illegal organisation while, under long-standing law, they are not permitted to join a trade union or engage in strike action.

During the past decade, the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has agitated for trade union status, even as the force was buffeted by a string of scandals. Morale was low because of reductions in pay and manpower brought on by the recession, while the appointment of various oversight bodies was resented. Then, in 2016, the GRA joined with the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) in threatening a withdrawal of labour unless demands for a restitution of pay to pre-crash levels were met. Faced by strike action in all but name, the Government buckled and permitted access to the State’s industrial relation’s apparatus, including the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. Pay increases amounting to €50m were awarded

With the genie out of the bottle, a review was ordered. The Government was advised against granting trade union status, permitting strike action or establishing a pay resolution process, separate from the civil service. Legislation is now being prepared that provides for new dispute resolution structures involving gardaí. But the president of the AGSI, Antoinette Cunningham, is demanding trade union recognition and the right to strike.Garda associations have achieved a great deal by securing access to formal dispute procedures. An unqualified right to strike would pose questions about the State’s ability to maintain law and order while, at the same time, raise the prospect of civil liability actions against gardaí. It is a step too far.