Sorry boys, it's your turn to share the pain now

 

Semi-State companies must be drafted into the effort to get ourselves out of the mess we are in, writes SARAH CAREY.

CALL IT clutching at straws – short straws – but one of the upsides of the downturn is that we’re starting to find out how the country is run. I laboured under the delusion that as a state we owned certain things – forests, bogs, pylons, pipelines and those ports we went to such trouble to get back from the British. As we break open the piggy banks, we’ve discovered that we don’t really own these things at all. They have morphed from our assets into something called the “commercial semi-States”.

On paper, technically and legally, we still own the ESB, Bord na Móna, Bord Gáis and Dublin Port. But morally, emotionally and psychologically, apparently they belong to their employees. That being so, all profits are unpaid wages and therefore the property of the workers, and not us, the owners. Or so Eamon Devoy, this week’s High Representative from the Order of the Beards seems to think. However, unusually for me, I don’t disagree with everything this trade union leader has to say.

On Monday’s Today with Pat Kennyon RTÉ Radio 1, Devoy described the bizarre results of the effort to introduce competition to electricity supply in Ireland.

In this sector competition has become, not a means to lower prices, but an end in itself which results in higher prices. The cost of setting up a new electricity company is so high that no one would bother unless they were guaranteed a certain level of income.

With the ESB’s dominant position, it could simply slash its prices and crush any opposition. To protect competitors such as Airtricity from just this strategy, the energy regulator prevents the ESB from cutting its rates. So in order to have competition, which is good because it brings lower prices, the regulator artificially keeps them high because that’s the only way we’ll have competition and that’s good because . . . oh dear. It’s all gone wrong, hasn’t it?

I presume this mess is the EU’s fault, but honestly, if we can get dispensations for abortion and wars, can’t we get one for electricity? Then the Minister could order the ESB to cut both the rate, their costs and the wages and this would harmonise nicely with the simulated devaluation policy.

So Eamon, I’m with you to a point, but it doesn’t alter the reality that the “commercial semi-States” must be drafted into the effort to get ourselves out of the unholy mess we find ourselves in. Instead, you have promised “unholy war”. I’m not sure if this is better or worse than a Holy War, but it sounds bad.

The workers’ representatives must acknowledge that they do not own the companies – we do. Therefore those profits create neither protection from wage cuts nor an entitlement to wage rises, but an opportunity for us. If we need to squeeze, then squeeze we shall. Moore McDowell, who sports an actual beard though not an ideological one, calculates that a 10 per cent cut in wages in the ESB would result in a 2 per cent cut in overall operating costs and this could amount to €57 million. In a world of billions, it may not sound like much, but €57 million would pay for a lot of special needs assistants and carers’ allowances, so we’ll have that, thanks very much.

Union leaders also like to talk of “solidarity” and “sharing the pain” so, share baby, share. The real private sector suffers redundancies, wage cuts and pension fund collapses. The public sector just got serially slapped with the pay cut and pension levy. Yet these hybrids, public companies who behave like private ones, inhabit an island of permanent jobs immune from public cuts. Sorry boys – it’s your turn.

On RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Feargal Keane listed the salaries. Some of the companies have low-paid call centre staff, but the average wages are still high: €73,000 in the ESB; €109,000 in the Irish Aviation Authority.

The top executives, as always, are creaming it. ESB chief executive Pádraig McManus was paid €534,000 last year. The chief executive of Coillte got €489,000. The chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority earned €412,000. The chief executive of Bord na Móna, after his bonus and pension top-up, was paid a total of €419,000.

Bord na Móna? The company whose work destroying the bogs and silting up the rivers contributed to the floods. The company that produces a product – turf – that the ESB is required by some ridiculous agreement to buy to make the most inefficient electricity imaginable. The company that even Devoy implicitly acknowledged exists, not because it does anything productive, but simply to employ people. Forget about cutting the wages or even the turf. Just shut it down. We’ll save money and the planet.

And don’t start with the “It’s not my fault!” or “It’s not fair!” or “I didn’t do it – he did!”

Honey, it’s not my fault either and I promise, after we’ve picked up the pieces, I’ll help organise the show trials. But right now, it doesn’t matter whose fault it was. We need the money and before people start decking each other on the street, we need to show that everyone is doing their bit. Thinking you can escape is just a semi-State of mind.

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