With recent debate over the future of the Croke Park Agreement due to comments by Fine Gael backbenchers, Stephen Heffernan contemplates its future


Do many people actually know what the Croke Park agreement is? Before researching it in depth, this writer was not the best informed himself. It was mostly only mentioned in passing by irate secondary school teachers as they bemoan their pay cuts and extra. Recently there have been divisions within our rickety coalition government with regard to this piece of legislation, which is due to be renegotiated when the agreement ceases at the end of 2013.
Many Fine Gael backbenchers have come out against it but one must wonder whether this is only some of the regular caterwauling of those less prominent in party circles who merely wish to guarantee their seat at the next election.
While it is certainly true that pay increments in the upper echelons of the public service are simply too high, we must also remember also that the time and effort that the more ambitious of the country’s public sector have put into climbing the administrative ladder. Perhaps a wage freeze would discourage the best and brightest of our graduates from trying to enter the public sector. The last thing this country needs is an even more substandard civil service in the future.

Although the government’s Chief Whip Paul Kehoe has stated that he is “happy to stick to” the agreement, he has acknowledged that “there’s an awful lot of people who have issues with it”. His fellow constituent Brendan Howlin is convinced that the less diligent public servants of this country are using the agreement merely to work to a lower standard or in some cases not at all, stating that “some have used Croke Park as a shield for their inactivity.”
However, in an interesting little subtext to all of this, the Fianna Fáil government who were in power when the agreement was signed, inserted a little escape clause for themselves. Clause 1.28 states that: “The implementation of this agreement is subject to no currently unforeseen budgetary deterioration” and I don’t think anyone can deny that things are far worse financially now than they were in 2009, when the agreement was drafted.

Is it time for the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to act on this? It is difficult to say whether they should do so, but the Troika may be on Ireland’s backs sooner than what we expect. It would certainly look bad for them to declare their inability to pay in international circles, but perhaps political gain is not what should they be thinking about. The next generation may look on them more kindly, as the group of men and women who put their hands up after their best attempts to solve the problem failed, rather than those who presided over a country which eventually ground to a standstill and defaulted entirely on its debts. The retirement scheme had its own pitfalls as well, especially in education, where many experienced principals and teachers left a power vacuum in their absence.

Is another general election on the horizon? The Labour Party Chairman, Colm Keaveney certainly seemed to think so last week, but then again he is one of a few TDs who may lose his seat as a result of the redrawing of constituency boundaries at the next election, so this may just be a further desperate attempt for himself to drum up publicity.
Living standards are going to decline; it will be simply a question of by how much. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Dublin Strike and Lockout, and we, as a nation, should reflect on how much damage was done to the working classes of an already decrepit Dublin city at this time. Striking is not going to solve the problem we are facing, and neither will constant grumbling from the farther reaches of the government benches. Something concrete will have to be put in place, perhaps a means test which takes the variable factors of public servants into account, such as their marital status, whether they are the sole breadwinner in their family, and so forth.

Perhaps the aforementioned clause 1.28 will be implemented, and our way of life as a nation will be changed forever. Would a third rate of tax be too much to ask for? When the Progressive Democrats were the junior coalition partner in government, we tried their laissez-faire tax policies and attempts at creating a more American way of doing things. It is clear that that system failed abjectly. The government will have to come to a decision one way or another. Do they wish to placate the public service and try to keep a sinking ship afloat, or will they put their hands up and default on the agreement. Neither option will be popular in certain circles, but that is no excuse for this government to shy away.