The country is in a far better place economically than could have been expected, but the Government needs to inject that extra few bob into frontline services and infrastructure that were severely neglected during the recession.
Teachers, non-consultant doctors, nurses, gardaí, and other public sector workers may feel their call for the restoration of pay is merited.
Ireland’s 300,000-odd public sector employees stood by this little country in its darkest days. They took pay cuts, were lumped with the pensions levy, accepted longer working hours at a time when their retiring colleagues were not being replaced, and saw resources stretched.
Now, the very vocal unions representing them want something back.
But the reality is we are borrowing €2.5bn this year alone to keep the lights on. We will have to hire thousands more public workers each year just to stand still, build many more schools, open many more hospital beds, and invest in broadband and other infrastructure essential to our future.
We can’t afford to be held to ransom by unions. Doing so would jeopardise the recovery.
Let us not forget that public service workers have already been getting a little back thanks to the Lansdowne Road agreement, which will cost hundreds of millions over three years — if it manages to remain in place until its 2018 end date.
In short and rough terms, the agreement has given back around €1,000 to each worker this year through a readjustment of the pension levy. And salaries are set to increase by a further €1,000, on average, under the deal.
The Government may now feel the union gun is pressed firmly to its head, but opening talks on a brand new public pay deal — just four months after the Lansdowne Road agreement came into effect — would be a weak move. The country simply does not have the funds to restore pay, at least not now.
Demographics mean that in the coming years we will need more nurses, doctors, and care workers to look after our elderly; and on the other end of the scale, more teachers to cater for an expanding young population.
The situation was laid out by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil yesterday. He said the number of public servants is likely to exceed 279,000 at the end of this year — up from 260,700 in 2013.
“Given the requirement for additional public services and investment in them, possibly 8,000 to 9,000 recruitments will be required every year,” he told the Dáil.
Fairness is the buzzword from both sides of the divide.
Members of the ASTI believe it is unfair that newly qualified teachers start on a lower salary than many of their colleagues; junior doctors feel aggrieved the €3,000 ‘living-out’ allowance was scrapped during the economic crisis.
If the Government were to bow down to the demands of the public sector unions, they would be inflicting a greater unfairness on everyone in the country.
Accelerating the restoration of wages would come at a cost — the money would have to be found from somewhere.
With Fine Gael adamant that taxes would not be increased, vital services would inevitably be cut.