Fair Play To You!

What a pity then that Croke Park ll not only involves further cuts in the income of most public servants but has created a perception of unfairness by appearing to treat similar circumstances differently and unfairly, writes Denis Doherty.

Like many expressions we use in Ireland  ‘fair play to you’ is a weasel term; a compliment on an achievement rather than a good wish. Just as well perhaps; fair play isn’t something we can boast about here. Ask the Magdalens, the victims of child abuse or the female public servants who had to resign from their jobs when they married, as recently as 1973. I could go on but I hardly need to! Many of the improvements in employment terms here didn’t stem from the efforts of governments and the trades unions; they resulted from our membership of the EU. Fair play!

Denis Doherty
Denis Doherty

And yet it all began so promisingly. In the mid 1920s the founding fathers of our State set up the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissions. These bodies succeeded admirably in safeguarding senior public appointments from party political influence. They were sometimes portrayed as bureaucratic and at times slow but they were viewed as being fair. The commitment of the politicians of the time to fairness in the making public appointments was admirable.

The Civil and Local Appointments Commissions were replaced by the Public Appointments Service, which has established a reputation for fairness, efficiency and best practice. Reassignment of staff is now a feature of the public service as downsizing takes effect. It is not easy to demonstrate that fairness is being achieved in these circumstances but there doesn’t exist a sense of unfairness either.

The threat of legislation that may be more draconian than Croke Park ll, if that deal is not accepted, seems to me to be an unedifying and an unbecoming way to conduct industrial relations.

What a pity then that Croke Park 2 not only involves further cuts in the income of most public servants but has created a perception of unfairness by appearing to treat similar circumstances differently and unfairly. There has been talk that fire fighters and prison officers got side deals on premium pay. If that’s true a prison officer on escort duty with a prisoner in a hospital will receive a higher premium than the doctor or the nurse treating the same patient. An ambulance crew at the scene of a road traffic accident will have their premium payments calculated on a less favorable basis than their fire service colleagues attending the same accident. That’s unfair, if that’s what’s planned. The statement attributed to a government minister that the unions that left the negotiating table left their members high and dry is hardly fair either. The threat of legislation that may be more draconian than Croke Park 2, if that deal is not accepted, seems to me to be an unedifying and an unbecoming way to conduct industrial relations at a time when goodwill by workers ought to be valued.

Our government constantly demands greater fairness in the bail out terms applying to Ireland. The political parties in government and the trades unions who stayed at the negotiating table are not blameless for the sorry state our economy is in but, that is not a consideration when bail out terms are  being negotiated. So, why penalise some parties in pay negotiations at home.

The potential negative effects of perceived unfairness by the government towards some groups of public servants could be immense. On the ground, very many public servants continue to show exceptional commitment and goodwill in their dealings with members of the public.  The vocational dimension they bring to their jobs is very evident in lots of settings. There is still a high level of innate care as distinct from a less tangible duty of care being experienced in our public services that is much less obvious in public services in other jurisdictions.  We’re promised our economy will recover and I believe it will. Should we lose some of the commitment, genuine caring attitude and kindness stemming from high morale in our public services I fear it may be more difficult to re-establish.  Perhaps the importance of ‘fair play’ in what we wish for may be recognised before too much damage is caused.