Government needs vision and delivery plan for public-sector pay

Cabinet must behave like a corporate entity to end uncertainty on public pay policy

Many are asking why we seem to be in such a mess on the industrial relations (IR) front.

Ireland has had an interesting IR history over the past several decades.

We had so-called free collective bargaining in the 1960s. This led to chaos, industrial strife and millions of days lost due to disputes. We faced up to those difficulties and developed new strategies.

In the 1970s, the model of centralised bargaining was also found wanting. What was intended to provide consistency and stability was found not to be delivering what the country needed.


The broad economic challenges of the late 1980s mobilised the minority government to change course again. Such were the magnitude and breadth of the challenges facing the country it was decided that a cohesive strategy was needed. Government led this initiative with the active participation of employers, unions and farmers. It worked and the foundations were laid for the economic growth that began in the mid-1990s.

The national consensus approach was modified as the social and economic challenges developed. Eventually it took the shape of an integrated social and economic policy for the country. It had very broad acceptance and competitiveness was at its core.

Consensus broadened

As the country moved into the 21st century the challenges continued to change and the strategy was adapted accordingly. The consensus was broadened to include previously excluded parties including the community and voluntary sector. As a spokesman for Irish business and employers I regularly articulated the principle that a vibrant and competitive economy was the only vehicle capable of meeting the needs of society, including eliminating poverty, homelessness and inequality.

Regrettably, the consensus approach was eventually found wanting because of the rapidly changing economic circumstances but also because it became discredited for a number of reasons. These included the impression of the existence of a closed shop of insiders working the system for their own benefit; the reasonable perception that the Oireachtas was excluded from the process; the very strongly held and correct view among the public generally that the public-service benchmarking body became the "ATM" for public servants, as one prominent union leader described it.

These weaknesses overshadowed the many benefits of the consensus approach. These included the image of Ireland as a country that guaranteed a stable environment for investment through a low corporate tax regime; a business-friendly culture where enterprise was at the heart of government policy; industrial peace through a cohesive approach to the management of pay policy and industrial relations and the involvement of key stakeholders in determining future policy.

The present circumstances clearly require an appropriate strategy. The Government does not have many options. It needs to respond like any organisation striving for survival in the acutely competitive global economy.

It can continue its present course and allow further instability and uncertainty to emerge. Or it can make a clear statement that it will develop a strategy to restore order, consistency and fairness, by engaging in a process to mobilise the expertise available to it.

Big-picture outcomes

Governments need to clearly state what big-picture outcomes they wish to achieve. People want leadership. That’s why we elect governments. The present Government is not strong in the conventional meaning of the word. However, its weakness in numbers and composition could be its strength if it takes its courage in its hands and decides to develop a strategic response.

Most of us will have first-hand experience in our workplaces of leaders who know what they are doing. Successful businesses have a strategy to begin with and they involve their employees in developing and implementing it. The Government must do the same. We need a strategic plan to meet the challenges presented by Brexit, global competition and threats to our corporate tax regime and competitiveness.

There are lessons for the Government and key stakeholders in how we responded to crises in the past. In the 1980s, government gave clear leadership and the trade unions responded with courageous leadership of their own by the likes of Bill Attley, John Carroll, Phil Flynn, Dan Murphy, Kevin Duffy and Peter Cassells. However, the crisis of eight years ago was characterised by a lack of a strategy by government.

In my view, any credible strategy must outlaw strikes by our police force. It is unthinkable that in a democracy the guardians of the peace and the protectors of our people would contemplate leaving their posts for any period of time. This glaring weakness in our system must be closed as quickly as possible.

The continuity of key essential services must also be assured. By these I mean power generation, transport and health. If employees in these sectors, including the Garda, agree to provide a guarantee of no disruption, a formula must be found to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in any way. This can be ensured easily by a regular and independent review of pay and conditions and an assurance that any deficit will be corrected promptly.

It’s time for government to develop a strategy and involve stakeholders including the Oireachtas, properly and comprehensively in the process. Government’s job is to set out the big-picture objectives just like a board of directors in a successful corporate. The plan to deliver the strategy can then be worked up with the involvement of the stakeholders. There is sufficient wisdom available to it to develop a much better alternative to the vacuum that currently exists.

Turlough O'Sullivan is managing director of Resolve Ireland and immediate past director general of IBEC