Public sector barbecue

BBQ 01It was genuinely refreshing to hear Minister Pat Rabbitte’s robust comments on RTE News this morning. The Minister criticised what he called the “incessant assault” on the public service, warned that it’s demoralising workers and making reform more difficult. He was speaking at the MacGill Summer School last night in Glenties in Co.Donegal, and he indicated that the assaults on public servants had been much in evidence during the debate on public sector reform at MacGill.

Among those speaking in Glenties was chairman of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness TD, for whom public service bashing is a favourite pastime. His latest colourful prose attack claimed that “the Croke Park Agreement was the greatest heist since Paris put his arms around Helen of Troy”.

The colour of the prose disguises the fact that there is little, if any, substance to McGuinness’ latest tirade. But this is coming from someone who, in the past, has employed farmyard analogies to describe people working in the public sector. Good for a splash of colour in some of the Sunday papers, but hardly helpful in developing a culture of reform, where mutual respect is the very least that’s necessary to achieve your aims.

Nobody can argue that social solidarity is something that Ireland will need to survive this economic crisis. But it’s impossible to achieve if you insist on dehumanising a group of workers to further your own agenda.

Quite properly, people have questions about Croke Park and what it delivers for Irish society. But all too often there is a lazy slide into condemning the fact that any agreement exists at all, despite the reductions in pay and numbers, and the cost savings and reform that it continues to deliver.

Cynicism, suspicion and outright hostility toward public sector workers is a common feature of the public debate since Ireland’s economic crisis began. It’s one of its more depressing characteristics. ‘Public servant’ and ‘public sector’ have become pejorative terms for many commentators, and ‘Croke Park’, which has been variously described as ‘a cancer’ and ‘a heist’, has now entered similar territory (much to the irritation, you would have to assume, of the GAA).

The polarisation of public and private sector workers has provided fodder to create, as Siptu’s Patricia King described it at MacGill this week, “more heat than light” in the debate about public sector reform.

While the Dáil is in recess for the next few weeks, and media deadlines are influenced less by the political schedule, it is highly likely that the public sector will continue to sizzle on the summer barbecue of media commentary. Increments will be described (erroneously) as ‘pay rises’ and just about anybody will be guaranteed some space in the media if they want to give out about them. The Government’s deferral of the publication of the review of public sector allowances will mean that these too will be rolled out for the occasional kicking. It’s an easy way to wind people up and fill the schedules.

But for all that, most people have moved on. The public’s appetite for public sector bashing has waned. Everyone is focussed much more on how the country can get through this crisis.

What will happen if Greece leaves the Euro? Is yesterday’s return to the bond markets genuinely good news? Will it create jobs? Will the stimulus package make a difference? These are things we all want to know, and light at the end of the tunnel is something we all want to see. Public servants understand their role in helping to achieve that, despite the ‘incessant assaults’.