Managing Public Pay

 

There is a palpable sense of relief in Government circles that the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has voted to accept the latest pay offer by a two to one majority. The GRA will, no doubt, claim that it has achieved a significant victory. The scale of the offer is - despite Government efforts at camouflage - well outside the parameters of its public-sector pay policy. The GRA will feel that their bullish tactics, such as the withdrawal of service under the guise of the so-called "blue-flu", were justified.

But victory has been achieved at a heavy price. To most fair-minded people, the spectacle of the "blue-flu", where members were encouraged to ring in sick, was a sorry departure from the concepts of duty and service which should be a first principle for any Garda organisation. The Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue, claimed on RTE radio's News at One yesterday, that no irrevocable damage has been done to the standing of the force with the public. Not everyone might agree: the Garda, or more specifically the GRA, has much work to do if it is to restore its proud image of public service. An end to the internecine feuding at the GRA and a return to established industrial relations procedures, might help. But the Government might also assist by affording the GRA a more meaningful input in framing public-service pay policy.

The results of the GRA ballot became known as the Economic and Social Research Institute, in its latest Quarterly Economic Commentary, warned that optimistic forecasts for the economy could still be derailed by excessive public-service pay demands. To its credit, it sought to remind policymakers and the public how the pursuit of short-term sectional advantage contributed to a severe loss of potential living standards in the Eighties.

The same mistakes can be avoided on this occasion, provided the Garda pay deal does not encourage other knock-on wage demands, and provided the Government reinforces the message that these will not be tolerated. During last week's general review of Partnership 2000, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, skillfully managed to defuse at least some of the simmering pay revolt among some public-service unions by promising a review of the negotiating system for the public service in the next national agreement. The Government is also seeking to avert a major pay battle this autumn by signalling that the next Budget will include substantial tax concessions for the lower and middle income sectors.

It is a delicate balancing act. The Government must seek to assuage the trade unions and keep inflation in check, while at the same time moving to reduce the national debt in line with its EU commitments. But there is no other way; wage moderation and social partnership have been crucial in setting the framework for this State's recent economic success. As Mr Ahern reminded the social partners last week, we have created a partnership process which is the envy of Europe. We must not allow it to unravel before our eyes.