All public servants must leave ‘FEMPI’ together

Bernard Harbor

BERNARD HARBOR warns that special deals for some groups of staff will undermine pay recovery for all.

The budget included an allocation of €290 million to ensure that gradual public service pay recovery, which finally got underway this year, continues into 2017. These improvements, crystalised in the Lansdowne Road agreement, represent the first positive public service pay adjustments since the savage cuts of 2009 and 2010, which reduced gross incomes by an average of around 14%.

The cuts were substantially larger for the minority of public servants at the higher end of the pay spectrum, who experienced a third (albeit temporary) cut in their incomes under 2011’s Haddington Road deal.

We’ve also seen significant changes to working conditions – most noticeably increased hours and reduced sick leave – and all on top of the increased taxes and charges levied on all workers, regardless of where they happened to work.

It’s remarkable that, with the exception of the pension levy and pay cuts imposed by the Fianna Fáil-led government, these substantial changes to pay and conditions have been implemented by agreement and without recourse to industrial action. It’s also widely recognised that this achievement underpinned the stability essential to the economic and fiscal recovery now underway.

For public servants, this approach lifted the very real threat of further pay cuts which, between 2010 and 2011, were repeatedly advocated by some politicians and many commentators as the Troika watched from the wings. Importantly, it also prevented the mass public service redundancies experienced in other Troika ‘programme’ countries.

Set against this history, it’s ironic that we’re now facing potentially unprecedented industrial upheaval just as incomes are starting to improve and are set to increase further next year, and when the official lexicon now envisages the full unwinding of the FEMPI legislation over time.

Impatience at the speed of pay recovery is understandable, particularly as the economic and fiscal situation improved far quicker in 2015-2016 than anyone envisaged when Lansdowne Road was signed. What is less understandable – and certainly unacceptable – is the notion that some groups of public servants should be favoured with accelerated pay increases at the expense of the rest.

The large and silent majority of public servants understand that income recovery can’t happen overnight. This doesn’t fill them with joy. But they know that, just as in the private sector, their employer has to be able to bear the cost of pay increases. And they remember from recent and bitter experience what happens if the bill is unsustainable.

Most also understand and accept that there are other legitimate calls on the still-constrained public purse. Public servants are not well served by the (thankfully few) voices who insist that full pay restoration must come before – rather than alongside – badly needed investment in services and infrastructure, and improved supports to the unemployed, pensioners, homeless families, and others who can’t depend on a regular living wage.

As the Government faces into actual and threatened industrial action from a small minority of public servants, it must avoid the temptation to interpret the responsible majority as indifferent or weak. A large number of public service groups and professions – including many that earn far less than teachers and gardai – could make a rational case for ‘special treatment.’ So, if special favours are conceded to any group outside the agreed framework of Lansdowne Road, other claims are simply bound to emerge. This would happen quickly and would be impossible to contain.

It’s understandable that the Government’s immediate focus is on the few who are challenging Lansdowne Road. But it needs to broaden its approach to shore up support for the agreement among the majority of public servants who are keeping their side of the bargain, but increasingly wonder if they’re going to be taken for granted.

It can do this in two ways. First, by sticking to the position that all groups of public servants will be treated equally and within the framework of the agreement. Public servants were all dragged into FEMPI together. They expect and deserve to get out of it together.

Secondly, it must accept that the agreement is a framework, not a straightjacket. The official narrative must develop beyond the mantra that Lansdowne Road is the ‘only game in town’ and the Government needs to quickly indicate that:

  1. It will agree to talks, beginning in the first half of 2017, aimed at bringing forward the timetable for a successor to Lansdowne Road so that pay recovery can be accelerated for all public servants if the exchequer continues to strengthen faster than envisaged when the agreement was signed.
  2. It will ensure that, despite the delay in its establishment, the Public Service Pay Commission will report in the early months of the new year to inform these talks, including by clarifying whether and how it will assist with specific issues raised (now or in the future) by particular groups and professions within the public service.

The stakes are high for the Government, but also for public servants and their unions. We’ve worked hard to help rebuild Ireland’s economy and society. In doing so, we’ve also reestablished our reputation with the public, which, at the height of the crisis, was damaged badly enough for a Government to gain public acceptance for the imposition of savage pay cuts.

Now that we’re out of the crisis, the majority of public servants have rightly held their nerve as the agreed route to public service pay restoration came under attack. The Government must take practical steps to reassure them that this continues to be the right call.

Bernard Harbor is the head of IMPACT’s Communications Unit. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Irish Times on Monday 24th October 2016.

AUDIO: Bernard Harbor was interviewed by Brian Dowling on RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke programme on Monday 24th October.