‘There was no cave-in and the trade unions have not won a famous victory’

It is interesting to read reports in newspapers which in the past have stated – perhaps hoped – that public service unions were beaten. They are now leading with headlines that the Government has caved in to the public service unions. It cannot be both and in my view it is neither. One newspaper stated that trade union leaders were jubilant at this agreement last night, which is quite fanciful, and the union leaders certainly do not look jubilant in the photograph beside the article.

They have no particular reason to feel jubilant and they are not looking for jubilation. They are not looking for humiliation and defeat either, which appears to be what some commentators and politicians want. It seems that the only way some people think we can make progress is through confrontation, with people being beaten and shot down. I do not agree with that or see it as the way forward for our country or the public service.

As somebody who absolutely supports the need for radical reform in the public service, I know that nobody in their right mind believes it can be achieved in two weeks of negotiation. How could all the issues we have debated in here be addressed in that short time? It is nonsensical or daft to suggest that was possible.

There was no cave-in and the trade unions have not won a famous victory. One report in a newspaper had a trade union group describing what happened yesterday as “the greatest betrayal in the history of the Irish trade union movement”. Which is it? My party has called for negotiations with a view to reaching agreement and yesterday’s developments represent a small but welcome advance. It is only an interim measure and it’s not a solution to the problem. I do not know if it will work.

Others may be right in raising how the 12 days of unpaid leave will work. Perhaps we will describe them as the 12 days of Christmas 2009 in a couple of years. We do not know how it will work out. The idea should be considered further and thrashed out in the next couple of weeks. Do we want confrontation or progress? People must decide what they want; do they want to see people beaten down or do they want a national recovery effort involving all of the country’s people in order to turn around our current economic position?

For that limited reason, yesterday’s developments are welcome. In the Labour Party we have argued that the public sector pay bill must be reduced and serious efforts should be made to achieve that without cutting people’s basic pay. The interim agreement seems to suggest that is possible. I do not know if it will ultimately be possible to reduce the public sector pay bill without cutting basic pay but I hope it will. This represents a small step forward in that regard.