Unions better to stick at Croke Park talks

THE decision by middle-ranking garda management to walk away from crucial talks between the Government and the public service unions represents a serious setback for the ongoing process of negotiation aimed at securing an extension of the Croke Park agreement.

Though not entirely unexpected, the walkout by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors is bound to deliver a psychological blow to the Coalition’s hopes of achieving deeper reform of the service and further cuts of €1bn off the State’s pay and pensions bill between 2013 and 2015. What is less certain now is whether these objectives can be achieved without forfeiting Ireland’s admirable track record of industrial relations stability.

The hostility of the AGSI executive to further pay cuts was plain to hear in the words of its general secretary, John Redmond, who warned yesterday that there seems no chance of garda sergeants and inspectors re-entering the negotiation process. Clearly, however, unless they are prepared to so do, they will find themselves out in the cold.

Coming less than a fortnight after talks began, the burning question facing the Government is whether other unions will be forced to adopt similar tactics when, as sure as night follows day, they also come under pressure to walk away from negotiations widely seen as yet another vital piece of the jigsaw that will shape Ireland’s economic recovery.

In an adroit bid to sweeten the bitter pill and make the package less destructive to the unions, the Government has effectively lopped €200m from its initial cuts target of €1bn. It has done so by juggling the figures so as to present the voluntary redundancy scheme as achieving that amount in savings after three years. By subtly bringing the level of cuts in pay and pensions down to a much less ominous sounding target of €800m, the Government has begun the psychological process of moving the goalposts a little.

Basically, the Coalition is seeking to cut the State’s workforce by around 4,000, mainly coming from the departments of agriculture, education, and health. In the current climate, their counterparts in the private sector would love to get anything near the voluntary redundancy package on offer, which includes a payment of three weeks per year of service, plus statutory entitlements that will be capped at two years’ salary.

So far, despite the radical nature of many of the changes being sought, including pay cuts, longer working hours, a reduction in overtime rates, and the abolition of increments, the main unions have remained within the talks process in spite of a growing sense of pessimism about their final outcome.

Given the Government’s evident determination, not only to impose pay and pension cuts, but also its resolve to reduce the workforce — even if it means going down the unprecedented and unpredictable road of compulsory redundancies — it would be much better for the whole country, both in social and economic terms, if instead of walking away, the unions stick to their last and persist at the negotiating table for as long as it takes to hammer out the best possible deal for their members. Because, at the end of the day, the stark reality is that consensus is far preferable to confrontation.

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