Options are limited in this mess of the Government’s own making

Just how did we come to this point, asks Daniel McConnell
Options are limited in this mess of the Government’s own making

We stand at the precipice of the first all-out industrial action by the country’s police force and, if it goes ahead, it will mark a dangerous precedent.

The practicality of not having any officers on duty on Friday is a frightening prospect and Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar was right when he said it would change the view of the force.

Politically, just how this situation come to pass? Where is the Department of Justice in all of this?

The point has been made by Michael Doherty, professor of employment law at Maynooth University, that this dispute has been caused by years of power centralising in the Department of Finance since the crash.

“What you have seen since the crash is more and more power being centred around the departments of Finance and Public Expenditure at the expense of the line departments of health and justice,” said Prof Doherty.

“When the decisions are being taken by Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, you tend to get an economic-centre decision.”

Mr Doherty is absolutely correct. Because of the nature of the crash, where budget after budget, line departments saw their funding slashed, and Finance and Public Expenditure have dominated all around them.

This is not to say that this is the express fault of Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe. Rather, it is more an unintended by-product of the crash which saw everything other than cost control.

The Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements were led by officials in Public Expenditure and Reform.

Mr Doherty made the point well that a successful industrial relations strategy requires more than an economic perspective.

However, what also must be remembered is that the Department of Justice is a very weakened entity after a succession of Garda-related crises. Those crises have seen the departure of former commissioner Martin Callinan, former justice minister Alan Shatter, and his top official, former secretary general Brian Purcell.

Mr Purcell has not yet been formally replaced so it has not been in any position to fight the flight of power to Merrion Street.

A similar story can be said for the Department of Health since the crash, where James Reilly repeatedly found himself at odds with then Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, who accused him of threatening the financial viability of the state with his universal health insurance plan.

Mr Doherty is also correct that this is not an industrial dispute like any other. It is not a strike in strictly legal terms, but the effect of the action will amount to same.

This time, the situation seems to be much worse than it was on the so-called Blue Flu Friday in 1998, when 5,000 members called in sick.

We now face the possibility of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald having to order 1,000 police officers to show up for work to ensure minimum coverage across the country.

All eyes are now on if agreement can be reached in time. The Labour Court will want some assurance that the central executive will not vote on this alone.

Mr Doherty argued that the Government has backed itself into a corner by sticking rigidly to Lansdowne Road, which was not designed for something of this nature, where the very security of the State is threatened. Options at this late stage appear limited but this is a mess of the Government’s own making.

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