Public sector pay report: Our society is dangerously divided

FOR generations this society, the more polite tiers of it anyway, avoided conflict by dodging red-button issues. 

In-laws or neighbours might not mention de Valera or Collins, Ring or Rackard, Charlie or Garret. The sexual adventures of sainted churchmen or handsome Irish-Americans in the White House were off-limits too. Decorum prevailed. Conflict was avoided but progress was long-fingered. One of today’s let’s-move-along-quickly subjects is public sector pay or, more specifically, the gap between public sector pay and private sector pay. There is no common ground, your background defines your unshakeable position.

A report by stockbrokers Davy that shows public sector workers, on average, enjoy a 40% advantage over their private sector peers puts the issue back on the public agenda — or, at least, it should. That public sector pensions or job security were not considered by the report’s authors frames the issue in even more spectacularly divisive terms.

The report found that an average public sector wage hit €47,400 but only €33,900 in the private sector. It found, too, that public sector pay will cost the exchequer €20.6bn this year, a level last reached in 2008. Nine years ago, there were 427,300 people on the public payroll, today there are 368,100. Those figures — 59,200 fewer employees — suggest that public sector pay restoration is, if not complete, well underway. The €20.6bn figure does not include the increase in public pensions costs over intervening years.

The report also compares our public sector pay rates to those across Europe. In Britain, the average public sector worker is paid €30,800, which reflects the UK’s private sector norm. Employees in Ireland’s public administration and defence, education, and human health and social work activities are the highest paid in the eurozone. If the gap in pay is startling, then the relationship between performance and reward is even more questionable.

Late last year, the Labour Court recommended a €40m hike in garda pay in the face of an illegal strike threatened by some of the force’s 13,000 members. Government insists the money will come from existing funds, so services for everyone else will be curtailed to fund this pay rise. Any consideration of these figures must be seen through the prism of the scandals that led the Garda Inspectorate to describe the force as “top- heavy, inefficient, defensive, bureaucratic, and resistant to change”. It is also the organisation that recorded nearly a million drink-driver tests that never took place and is responsible for nearly 15,000 wrongful road traffic convictions. Gardaí had Ireland’s highest average public pay in 2016 at €64,700 — almost twice the private sector average — and continue to enjoy retirement options unimaginable to anyone but a Lotto winner. This focus on our besieged gardaí may seem unfair but it is to highlight the unsustainable differences in Ireland’s parallel universes. The Public Pay Commission is considering these matters, but it is seen more as a mechanism to improve public pay rather than restore balance.

These figures describe a deeply divided and dangerously skewed society. And we wonder why Trump was elected.


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