Just as Boris Johnson imagines his get-off-me adventures are not relevant to the public he expects to accept him as their prime minister should his plans bear fruit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s suggestion that any comparison between pay increases granted to judges and the HSE support workers strike is “bogus and misleading” is, as Boris might harrumph while waving his arms, poppycock.
That the judges’ pay was dealt with at a private meeting of the Oireachtas Finance Committee earlier this week suggests the issue is regarded as incendiary. And it should be so regarded. Maybe so incendiary that Mr Varadkar will order an investigation to establish who left the cat out of the bag — just as he has done in the case of Maria Bailey.
However, Mr Varadkar should first offer an explanation to the Dáil why such a sensitive issue, one that has many parallels in other professions employed by the State, had to be resolved off-radar. He should also tell the Dáil how many other public sector pay deals have been finalised beyond the scrutiny of public representatives — and those representatives should demand that he do so.
Is this out-of-sight-out-of-mind style of industrial relations a regular occurrence in the Government’s interaction with its employees? Indeed, Siptu, the union representing hospital support workers, will wonder why their difficulties could not have been resolved in such a discreet, gentlemanly way — and they will not be alone.
Nevertheless, any fair person would make an effort to see this story in the round and such generosity might provoke some, but not much, sympathy for Government. They, as this week’s economic statement confirmed, face huge uncertainty and must enforce the kind of caution that makes pay increases unwise if not impossible.
There is hardly a group of workers — public or private — that imagines itself adequately paid and those with the leverage to win concessions are not slow to exercise that advantage. Hospital consultants and their nursing colleagues — among the best-paid in the world despite all the Boris-style harrumphing — fall into this category. So do third level academics and teachers; the list and the pay demands go on and on, it was ever thus.
What has changed though is the deepening perception that this Government is more comfortable satisfying business and top-of-the-scale professionals than it is dealing with the challenges faced by blue collar workers. This worrying impression is driven by the failure, be it ideological or one of competence, to make even the slightest ripple in the housing crisis or in the institutional arrangements that underpins it.
It is unfortunate Government has shown that it is willing to make a concession to judges who, if they compare themselves to their barrister colleagues may indeed feel a twinge of envy but that is an entirely different story.
That twinge, however, is nothing compared to the one felt by the hospital support staff who want a pay rise to make ends meet rather than enhance an already comfortable package. Mr Varadkar and some of his colleagues have been irked by the Tory Boy tag but, unfortunately, behaviour like this vindicates it. Maybe they have more in common with Boris than is comfortable.