As we face a winter of discontent, now is the time for Cowen to lead

I ONCE worked for Denis Larkin. The son of the great Jim Larkin, and brother of Young Jim, also regarded as a great trade union leader, Denis was the least highly rated of the three.

But he had an extraordinary instinct for solving problems, and an uncanny ability to bring people together at precisely the right time to make progress in a dispute. Although over his lifetime, he was involved in many strikes, he hated them.

A lifetime of industrial relations had taught Denis Larkin that every strike was a failure of negotiations. Every strike had to have a loser and winner, and real industrial relations is built on allowing everyone to win.

So if Denis Larkin were alive today, I’m betting that he would be demanding one thing above all from the Government. He’d be looking ahead to all the uncertainty around the corner, and he’d be saying that it’s time for leadership. Not speeches or posturing, mind you. He would want a bit of real, shoot-from-the-hip, we’re-all-in-this-together kind of leadership.

The pay talks have broken down. There are times when that might not have mattered too much. When our economy was going gang-busters, and ministers were encouraging us to “party on” (remember those happy days?), a pay free-for-all might actually have sorted out a few things.

But right now, the last thing our economy needs is uncertainty. We’re sort of teetering on the brink at the moment.

Everyone knows that for the next few years we’re not going to see the sort of growth that characterised the last decade and a half. But we’re still a rich country, with a lot of capacity. One of the things that could undermine us, and topple us into a downward spiral, is a period of industrial unrest.

I was a trade union official for years, and they were the years when strikes were part of the norm. The reputation we gathered then did us no good whatsoever, and we cannot afford to see those days return. Ireland’s strengths include an ability to attract and retain foreign investment, and industrial strife could easily — and quickly — turn that strength into a weakness. If we compound that by industrial relations disputes over basic pay in, say, the key utilities like electricity, or in companies that attract a lot of international coverage, our present difficulties could pale into insignificance.

And if we are now to embark on a period where trade union officials and employers all around the country start squaring off against one another, trying to sort out at local level what hasn’t been achieved at national level, that’s going to happen against a very unique background.

There has never been a time in our history when so many people in the industrial relations world have so little experience of how to negotiate a pay round. It has almost been a generation since trade unions and employers have had to face each other without the guidance of a nationally negotiated framework to help them.

There will be trade union officials, and personnel managers, who have never done this sort of thing before. The capacity for mistakes is huge, and the consequences could be horrendous.

Throughout the Celtic Tiger, the one thing we could take for granted was basic pay. National negotiations always ensured that nobody felt left out — and they also ensured that no one (on either side of the negotiating table) was able to bully their way into an exploitative position. If we lose all that now, and further undermine the economy at a specially fragile moment, it will be both a failure and a tragedy.

And it will be the consequence of a lack of leadership. Right at the very start of this process, everyone in Ireland noted that the Government had been awarded a very substantial pay increase, and was entirely disposed to put the extra money in its back pocket. And it was noted too that there were people throughout Ireland whose total wages were less than the increases being awarded to senior ministers. But even that didn’t seem to bother the ministers unduly.

By now, I’m guessing, they bitterly regret the cavalier attitude they showed in the beginning. I know that after Brian Cowen became Taoiseach he let it be known that he was willing to include the ministerial pay increase in the national negotiating process, and eventually there was a sense that the Government had bowed to the inevitable. But even though they eventually decided not to take the money, it all looked as if they were reacting to a position they had been forced into.

I wonder how much stronger his position would be today if, instead of taking the conservative, minimalist approach, he had said right from the start of his tenure of office that he simply did not believe that a government he led should be rewarded way in excess of the people they served. If one of his first acts had been to renounce any increase in pay, his moral authority would have been immeasurably strengthened immediately. We, the citizens he serves, would have seen him as being on our side. That opportunity has been lost. But that doesn’t mean the Taoiseach and the Government can’t exercise leadership, and that they can’t show moral authority. Far from it. But the time to act is now. Right now.

If we are to believe all the immediate reactions to the weekend breakdown, the Taoiseach is hoping to call all the parties together at the end of the month. That’s crazy. By the time that happens, attitudes will have hardened, a whole variety of pay claims will already have been lodged, battle lines will be beginning to be drawn up.

The situation may not be out of control — but it will certainly be out of the Government’s control.

The time to act is now. The Taoiseach needs to call all the parties together this week and he needs to spell out where Ireland’s essential interests lie. Governments often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to decide where the good of the whole community is to be found in the midst of competing interests, and that role has seldom been more vital in the recent past than it is right now.

Don’t get me wrong. The national agreements of the past 20 years or so have essentially been about better management, but they have lasted because they have also been underpinned by a broad consensus about what’s fair and what’s just. In spelling out now where Ireland’s interest lie, the Taoiseach and the Government must also have regard to what’s fair and just. We’re not going to make progress by deciding everything on the basis of what we can afford to do — there are some things we can’t afford not to do as well.

Fair treatment of people who work for a living has to be part of the plan. Even in harder times, fair treatment of people who depend on the State is fundamental too.

Now is the time for the Taoiseach to tell both trade unions and employers what’s fair and what’s just, as well as what’s manageable. Now is the time for the Taoiseach to lead.

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