The Minister's Fig-Leaf

 

The suggestion by the Minister for Public Enterprise, Ms O'Rourke, that the chairman of CIE, Mr Brian Joyce, had resigned rather than face her displeasure over the implementation of a rail safety programme was mean-minded and self-serving. It totally ignored the clear and cogent reasons for resignation set down in Mr Joyce's own letter to the Minister, and it provided Ms O'Rourke with a fig-leaf designed to obscure her own responsibilities in the matter.

That there are serious operational and managerial problems within CIE goes without saying. The semi-State company was starved of finance for decades by successive governments. Industrial relations were strained by necessary restructuring. And the quality of public transport failed to measure up when rapid economic growth made new demands on it. In spite of these handicaps, the level of dislocation caused to commuters was small. But morale within the three transport companies hit rock bottom.

In his letter of resignation, Mr Joyce expressed concern that the LUAS light rail project would absorb up to 50 per cent of available resources for national public transport in return for carrying less than 10 per cent of peak-time passengers into central Dublin. In 1998, he had indicated - as chairman - that a revitalisation of CIE would depend on "handing back the management of the CIE companies to the managers". This would involve granting public service contracts to CIE; giving it the power to increase fares and ensuring it enjoyed freedom from Government involvement in industrial relations. Those three elements, he said, remained a pipe dream.

There is no denying the failure of Ms O'Rourke to deliver on public service contracts, although the matter is currently being examined within her Department. As for fare increases, CIE was granted a 5 per cent rise to cover the entire period since 1991, far less than the level of inflation. And Mr Joyce complained that sub-strata involvement in industrial relations matters by third parties had completely undermined management and left them defenceless against any form of industrial action.

The Minister denied she had interfered in the running of the company or in handling of the recent bus dispute. But she distinguished between "interference and democratic stewardship" when confirming she had "kept in touch with the various parties". This juggling with words and meaning might be good politics when you are in a tight corner, but it undermines trust in politics and in politicians. Only three weeks ago, Ms O'Rourke told the Dail her contacts with unions and management had been designed to ascertain whether a basis could be found for negotiations and the resolution of the dispute. And she urged the parties to enter negotiations without preconditions.

As the sole shareholder in the semi-State company, Ms O'Rourke is ultimately responsible for ensuring the quality of public transport. Because of that, it is perfectly understandable she would be anxious to ensure there would be no disruption in service. But she cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound; demanding high quality services, while denying the financial resources necessary to improve standards and the morale of employees. Mr Joyce took an honourable course in resigning over fundamental policy differences with the Minister. Ms O'Rourke's response amounted to a denial of responsibility and a transference of blame. It was shabby treatment of a senior executive who, in the Minister's own words, was a fine chairman.