Barely a month into his role as minister for both transport and sport, it is the kind of public relations disaster Paschal Donohoe could really have done without — a transport strike at the national rail service which will almost certainly stop fans getting to a semi-final in one of the country’s favourite competitions.
What’s more, unless the resolution which has failed to materialise during 20 months of negotiations suddenly emerges in the next few weeks, the row will also cause chaos for 80,000 fans trying to get to each of next month’s All-Ireland finals in both hurling and Gaelic football.
At this stage, work stoppages are planned by the National Bus and Rail Union on August 24 and 25 and September 7 and 21. Siptu’s stoppages are on August 25 and September 7, 8, and 21. It is hard not to think that the dates, particularly in September, have been deliberately chosen by the unions to get the maximum publicity.
Kilkenny, Tipperary, Kerry, and Mayo are four counties either in or still in the running to compete in the hurling or football finals on September 7 or 21 respectively. A lack of train route for thousands of fans from each finalist county will cause traffic mayhem both before and after the match.
If we set aside his bizarre stetson-wearing promotion of the Garth Brooks-replacement ‘City & Western’ event in Dublin (surely the Government wanted to dispel the widely-held perception of politicians as a bunch of cowboys?) this is the first real test of Mr Donohoe’s tenure as Transport and Sports Minister.
Many, particularly those travelling to Dublin for Sunday’s Mayo-Kerry football semi-final, may view it as a test he has failed, not least with his utterance last week that it was down to the unions and management to find a solution so that the “iconic” sporting events were not hit.
Fianna Fáil are more than willing to add to that perception, accusing Mr Donohoe of “relishing the opportunity to strike some sort of macho Fine Gael anti-union pose in the media” and “making unhelpful and ill-advised remarks... jeopardising the process”.
However, sources close to the dispute admit there is little the Minister or the Government can do, other than offer what support they can to prop up the company financially — Mr Donohoe said last week he would campaign “very strongly” for funding needed to grow services and deliver infrastructure.
The intervention of a third party, such as the Labour Court or Labour Relations Commission, seems unlikely at least before this weekend’s action. In fact, after 20 months of talks in both those fora, as well as through an independent third party, there is little chance a mediated solution will be forthcoming any time soon.
Overall, the rail company wants to find €8.5m in savings, of which it believes €4.7m should come from cuts in the staff pay bill. The cost- savings plan will see temporary pay cuts ranging from 1.7% for staff earning up to €56,000 and up to 6.1% for those earning more than €100,000.
Iarnród Éireann is adamant that the targeted savings are essential for its financial solvency as well as for the protection of customer services and the security of its workforce’s employment. The rail company says it has suffered a reduction in annual income of more than €108m since the onset of the economic crisis — €72.3m in Public Service Obligation payments (a reduction of 38%) and €35.2m in revenue. It adds that, despite reducing annual operating costs by €73m in the same period, it has recorded losses annually in successive years, with a loss of €16.4m in 2013.
However, the unions which are refusing to sign up to the pay-cuts, Siptu and the National Bus and Rail Union, question the imposition of more hardship on their members. They point out that in recent years staff have accepted of payroll reductions amounting to €36m.
They also question the company’s attitude to making the required savings.
“In 2012, management told staff that if in addition to a reduction in numbers they also accepted cuts to their annual leave, allowances and overtime, as well as changes to their pension scheme, the company would break even by 2016,” Siptu said.
“However, since this commitment was given, the management of Irish Rail has presided over an increasing ratio of managers to workers, while revenues have decreased and non-payroll costs increased.”
The war of words has rumbled on for almost 20 months now, but so far, there has been little disruption to passengers.
The company’s decision to press ahead with implementing the cuts on Sunday will end the fragile stand-off that has endured. Passengers look set to be disrupted for some time to come.