Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Why it's a good thing those crazy pay talks broke down

I welcome the breakdown in the public sector pay talks. They had reached near-farcical proportions and are now inescapably replaced by the initiative being back with the Government, where it should always have been.

I have been consistently opposed, as readers will know, and over many years, to the partnership agreements between the Government, the unions and the employers.

My opposition is founded on a number of principles, the first of them being on grounds that the approach is not democratic but exclusive; the second that it is by definition inflationary; the third that it is an irreversible process; the fourth that it downgrades the government of the country and places it in a form of round-table discussion over who has power, a discussion confined to a privileged group of influential people who do not represent the majority.

The last principle of these, though not the most important of them, is currently the least favoured by the wider public, made up of private-sector businesses, non-union labour, small farmers, unemployed, elderly retired, homeless -- a class suddenly augmented by the dreadful floods that have laid bare a great deal of greedy bad planning over the location of inundated housing estates -- and the growing array of people being made to feel marginalised.

More than anything else, they are the victims of inflation, a side-effect of inequality and always the outcome of the partnership approach, itself a threat to the principle of fairness we deserve in the government of the country. They, too, should be relieved at responsibility being back where it belongs.

This group of people -- who have been outside the talks going on in Government Buildings -- looked in upon a nexus of greed and fear: greed by the powerful unions, whose concern for the country is a long way behind concern for members, and the Government, fearful that the old standby of 'partnership agreement' dressed up to be a solution to the country's ills, will neither address nor solve those ills.

The employers, who know this is a bad process, are pompous and largely futile witnesses to what was always going to be inadequate.

Also outside the loop stood the backbench TDs of Fianna Fail, discovering that their grass roots were under water and that the cries of the dispossessed were those of drowning voters who were deserting them, perhaps for ever.

Rarely have we seen Fianna Fail deputies speaking out quite as openly, of their dismay and wrath about a prospective deal that is so wide of the mark of what is needed for the country as to be laughable.

There, you now have laid before you the second and the fourth of the principles listed above as unacceptable.

Those same Fianna Fail TDs gave expression to an extension of the fear that all this is an assault on basic democratic principles in the following important way: that their opponents on the ground -- Labour, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and potential independents -- were increasingly benefiting from an alternative form of democracy gaining support on the ground.

Voters are bitterly aware, in all the disasters and difficulties they face, that the Government has lost its way. And this was very much the case in the pointless partnership talks.

There is a potential alternative democracy waiting there and it expresses its repudiation of what is going on, notably through the voices of two considerable political critics of bad government, Joan Burton and Richard Bruton, though of many others as well.

They are being treated with disdain, which has become a norm in our system. We foolishly accepted it when things were going well; now that our governance is in freefall we, and they, are angry. And it is a justified anger very properly frightening the elected supporters of the present shambles for which very little good at all can be expressed.

It will have been heightened by the arrogance of Liam Doran, of the Irish Nurses' Organisation, telling us all to pause for breath and leave the privileged in Government Buildings to the important work they are doing, keeping our "mouths shut until we see what happens".

That is an absurd way to run a country and was appropriately dismissed by Leo Varadkar's description of Doran's words as an "uno duce, una voce outburst".

He then came out with a pathetic and overdue productivity clause in his own HSE case.

What Doran thought would happen -- the only tolerable outcome for him and his union colleagues -- was the avoidance of straight public sector pay cuts and the substitution of a half-baked unpaid leave proposal that is as leaky as a sieve.

This is where the irreversibility of talks dominated by trade unions, representing the powerful weapon of their own memberships, became exposed and has now, thankfully, foundered.

Though the whole country knows we have to reverse engines, not just on pay but on expenditure, duplication of jobs, the massive state invention of a huge array of organisations that also duplicate the work of the public service, pay and expenses for elected representatives and for others, the partnership approach cannot do it. It is a one-way engine, was always an expensive way to go and is now outdated and redundant.

What we also know, as a result of the massive inaction of Cowen's Government since he took over from the real architect of our chaos, Bertie Ahern, is that it won't work either. It has made a succession of wrong decisions and seems incapable of untangling them.

These include the banks and NAMA. Enmeshed in this is the propping up of a disastrous 'golden circle' of developers.

The Government has failed over reform, significantly in not tackling the duplication that has put expensive political advisers between those elected to govern and the civil servants who should use the machinery of their departments to shape that Government. This has been extravagantly inflationary and is not being tackled. What have the unions to say about that? Nothing, since they are part of the replacement psychology that has come close to destroying our whole process of government operation.

There was no partnership deal between the unions, government and management that could possibly have made sense in the face of the present economic and budgetary challenges. It is now back to the Government to do what it has avoided doing since the crisis began: fully to grasp the nettle of cutting pay. Let them do it with a vengeance.