Most people are poorer because of the economic crash and the actions taken by government and private sector employers to bring their costs into line with revenues. Since then, pay levels in the multinational sector have risen but there is growing disaffection and militancy elsewhere as employees feel excluded from the benefits of economic recovery. Nowhere has this demand for pay restoration been more pronounced than within the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) where strike action, a uniformed march on parliament and the picketing of ministerial homes have been advocated. The fact that transparently illegal behaviour is being canvassed by middle management gardaí who are paid to uphold law demands a carefully considered response. The absence of a government capable of dealing with the situation makes the situation even more disturbing.
The last time militancy of this nature was displayed was in 1998 when the Garda Representative Association (GRA) led ordinary gardí in an orchestrated withdrawal of labour. Because thousands of gardaí called in sick on certain days, the protest became known as the 'blue flu'. Having regard to the forceful behaviour of their AGSI colleagues on this occasion – they stood aloof in 1998 – the GRA is again expected to push the boundaries of acceptability. An additional pressure within the GRA involves the treatment of new recruits who experience a two-tier pay level and a loss of allowances.
Recently, the competence and discipline of the Garda Síochána has come under scrutiny as never before. This has involved an increase in official oversight and a decline in morale. Arrangements are also in place for greater transparency and community involvement through the work of an Independent Policing Authority. A report by the Garda Inspectorate last year found the organisation to be top-heavy, inefficient, defensive, bureaucratic and resistance to change. It suggested that changes to structures and rosters could free up to 1,000 gardaí for front-line services. All of these reports, recommendations and criticisms have contributed to an embattled, 'us and them' mentality.
A review of Garda pay is underway under the auspices of a former Labour Relations Commission official and the ASGI and the GRA had hoped for a positive outcome. A budget-neutral submission from the Department of Justice, however, proposed fundamental reform of pay and allowances, reduce overtime spending and more flexible rosters. Some 50 different allowances were identified for review. The response of the ASGI has been that tampering with allowances will not be tolerated and that the review should only be concerned with pay restoration. In this pressure-cooker atmosphere, moderation and flexibility will be required from all sides.