Public Representatives need to be careful not to politicise pay deal

There was a debate on the Croke Park Pay Deal in the Seanad this afternoon. This was my contribution.

I listened carefully to what Senator Martin Brady said. I have rarely heard a more balanced and fair-minded treatment of the current situation in regard to industrial relations and the Croke Park deal throughout any of the debate in recent weeks. What he said is right and fair. It evinces an experience he clearly has had, as I have had over quite a number of years as a trade unionist and as someone who worked within trade unions and understands the complexity of the situation. People are faced with a proposal which possibly could be characterised as trying to make a decision between something that is deeply unpalatable on the one hand or catastrophic on the other hand. People are trying to make a decision based on two options that are presented to them, neither of which is palatable and neither of which they wish to take. However, there are being asked to take one or other option and that is what they will do.

I endorse what my party leader, Deputy Gilmore, said, on the publication of this agreement – when he welcomed and commended Mr. Mulvey on the work he had done and the parties who took part in the negotiations – that it will need to be considered by trade union members in a calm and rational way – as Senator Brady has said – taking into consideration all factors, including the need for public service reform, for which I agree there is a pressing need, the state of the national finances, the level of unemployment and conditions in the private sector. They are grave issues which must be taken into account and I have no doubt they will be by the many thousands of people who will vote on this agreement in the coming weeks.

My party was mentioned on a few occasions during the course of this debate, which is not entirely unexpected and perhaps not entirely unrelated to a certain recent opinion poll about which many people seem to be very excited. A question that arises is what is the role of public representatives in circumstances where a deal or a draft agreement such as this is being voted on. I am not aware in all my years of observing public affairs and trade union affairs of Opposition parties ever endorsing an agreement or a draft agreement or being asked to do so. What is behind this, far from being an attempt to pull back from politicising is in truth a lamentable attempt to politicise what is happening. People should be very careful and should pull back from doing so.

In this context I will refer to Jack O’Connor. He has been praised and it has been said that he is doing a very difficult job and so on. This is a man people were very happy to demonise up to a few weeks ago, and are now happy praise as someone who is at the heart of what needs to happen and people are being encouraged to go with what Jack O’Connor recommends. I have enormous respect for Jack O’Connor – he is somebody I know well.

What do we seek to achieve or what do we believe we can achieve in this debate? Is it that we believe that by taking a particular position we can encourage or change people’s minds as to how they will vote? I do not accept that people seriously believe that what is said in this Chamber, for which I have great respect, this afternoon or what is said by political leaders will be in any way decisive as to how people will vote on this agreement. People have to take into account what their union executives say, whether it is the CPSU or otherwise. They have to make a decision based on their and their family’s future and the situation they face on practical level every day.

It is noteworthy that people say that we should look to what Jack O’Connor is saying, and that he is the person on whose judgment we should be relying; I would have thought there would be a premium on his judgment in terms of how this deal can be got across the line. What individual in this country has the best judgment as to what is required in order to get this deal across the line? I believe it is Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Begg. What do they say in relation to public representatives and political parties on this issue? What Jack O’Connor in particular said is that he has appealed to politicians in all parties to refrain from commenting on the proposed Croke Park agreement in order to allow trade union members time to focus on the intrinsic merit, or otherwise, of the proposals during the balloting period. I will not be told, anymore than anybody else here will be, what to say or not to say or whether to speak or not to speak by Jack O’Connor but it is interesting that this is the person who people are now lauding as being the man who will get this deal across the line.

The Minister of State’s speech today was quite calm, he did not oversell, overtalk and over-extend himself. That is exactly the tone that should be adopted. I agree with very much of what is the agreement. It is a framework which presents a necessary agenda for public service reform. The Minister is correct in saying that it will go a long way towards ensuring the engagement of public service workers in their future, which is what we want to see happening. As I have stated previously in this House, one cannot impose change on people in terms of getting their co-operation. One can cut staff and move people around by stealth but at the end of the day if one wants a working professional loyal public service, the only way to achieve this is to allow people themselves to negotiate on all the issues of flexibility and change required, which I accept are required.

The best way forward in the circumstances is to allow the experienced trade union leaders and their members to carefully reflect on what is at stake. I do not believe it is a matter on which political parties should call for a vote one way or the other, although we have been called on to comment and have done so. Let us hope that we now have a real opportunity for public service reform, contrary to the dreadful crisis before Christmas when that attempt appeared to blow up in everybody’s face.