Throughout yesterday there seemed to be mixed signals coming from both sides. There were suggestions of some kind of breakthrough with the Government.
Union spokespeople were saying that implementing around 12 days of unpaid leave would secure much of the necessary €1.3 billion in savings on the public expenditure bill, without disrupting the public service. Moreover there were suggestions that this leave could somehow be taken over a period of up to four years.
The Taoiseach was insisting, however, that the unpaid leave proposal did not provide the basis for agreement in its existing form. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny argued that it could not possibly achieve the necessary savings. There is unquestionably a need for real reform. The Exchequer deficit for the first 11 months of this year jumped to over €22bn in comparison with under €7.9bn the same time last year. This cannot continue.
It should not be about the public sector unions or the Government winning or losing, because it is not a competition between them. It should be about providing more effective service for the Irish public. It seems incongruous that we have been spending so much money on health but we still have massive waiting lists.
The unpaid leave proposal might save some money in the short term but real reform of the public sector is necessary, not a mere tinkering. As a nation, we should be working together to rectify the problems. This need not necessarily mean that we have to have fewer public servants; it could involve more frontline staff and fewer managers. This would afford an opportunity to spend resources on people in the right places. Frontline staff must be provided to tackle the real problems, rather than the seemingly interminable procrastination and empty talk about taking effective action.
The public service must be reformed. There is no longer room for mere fudge. For months the Government procrastinated because it was waiting for the reports of An Bord Snip Nua and the Commission on Taxation. Many of their recommendations were unpalatable, but it seems now that much of those are just being ignored.
What is being suggested appears to be little more than short-term expediency to get through next week’s budget and then go on holidays and ignore the problems of the country, as the Government has been essentially doing for more than a year. This country is in crisis and we have had much too much procrastination already.