At the start of Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil yesterday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin asked whether Transport Minister Shane Ross is intervening in the rail dispute rather than “tweeting about the fortunes of Manchester United or contemplating publicly a fantasy visit to North Korea”.
There were jokes on social media about Ross wanting to go on the Independent Alliance mission to North Korea because it would be easier to resolve the crisis there than tackle the rail network here.
The reality is that an intervention by Ross to bring this prolonged dispute to an end will not be forthcoming, just as there has barely been a ministerial intervention which materially affected any transport strike in the last decade.
The oft-used line by the minister of the day is that they will not spend taxpayers’ money to resolve a dispute.
Of course, one could argue that that position is not universal — the €50m deal brokered by the Labour Court for gardaí at the behest of the Government came after low- and middle-ranking officers threatened a 24-hour withdrawal of service — a strike in all but name.
That deal set a benchmark, public servants became more fervent in their demands for pay restoration, transport workers agitated for, and in most cases got, significant pay increases.
The headline demand from rail unions now is 3.75% increases without productivity concessions. That is not a cast-iron demand. There has been an acceptance — from some quarters of the trade union movement at least — that an increase in the region of 2.5% is something unions would have to consider balloting their members on. The expectation is that they would discuss productivity measures in the not-too-distant future if the increase was agreed.
However, Irish Rail has to be able to afford whatever increase it concedes and, at this stage, it has not been able to move beyond 1.75% with productivity.
Going back the Dáil yesterday, Mr Martin made a good point to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, saying: “In the aftermath of the bus strike, the minister, Deputy Ross, made serious commitments to convening a stakeholders’ forum involving the National Transport Authority (NTA), his department, Irish Rail, and the unions. It was never convened.
“The whole idea was to try to prevent the type of industrial relations turmoil that sadly has been too much of a feature of our public transport system in the past two years. A national rail review was initiated 12 months ago. Submissions were sought from everyone... That has never seen the light of day. Where is the national rail review?”
The commuting public is growing more and more impatient with the constant threat of strikes in the transport sector, not least the 150,000 affected yesterday. Further rail strikes are planned over the next few weeks and they are only likely to get more disruptive in the run-up to Christmas.
Bearing that in mind, the rail review and transport forum are what Ross should be focused on rather than Old Trafford or Pyongyang.