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Column: Industrial action by gardaí is unacceptable - and here's why

Cuts to garda pay and conditions are shameful and short-sighted – but officers have a civic duty that overrides any option of industrial action, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

MEMBERS OF AN Garda Siochana are forbidden from striking on account of their vital role in preserving the peace and maintaining law and order in the State. The government seems to be foolishly using this as the cornerstone to their negotiations with members of the force, who are now openly voting to engage in a guerrilla form of industrial action through work to rules and potential blue flus.

Members of the force have a very legitimate demand to be protected from further pay cuts during the Croke Park II process. Indeed, they deserve pay increases for the increasingly strenuous work they do in an era of insufficient resources, where fewer police do more work with less in their hands. Nevertheless, given the special position of the gardaí, industrial action that is a strike by any other name is nothing short of sedition against the authority of the State.

The Macushla Revolt

The Garda Representative Organisation was formed in the wake of the “Macushla Revolt” in November 1961, when many gardaí started to meet and organise in protest of their poor pay and conditions. Back in those days there was a force-sanctioned body to represent gardaí that was stuffed with the officer class, old guards who looked after themselves and didn’t much bother with the conditions suffered by younger and increasingly well-educated rank and file.

A pay deal was reached that gave rises to older guards, particularly those coming up on retirement whose pensions would be most positively affected; and younger gardaí got nothing in a move quite reminiscent of the state of public sector pay today: The older generation pulling up the ladder behind them in the guise of union deals that leave new entrants, like graduate nurses, expected to do the same work for less money.

The younger guards in 1961 were in an organisation of strict discipline and few pleasures. Guards posted around the country lived in sparse barracks and had to observe a curfew at midnight when off duty. They lived at the whims of their superiors and were not well paid for the standards of the day.

Well over a thousand gardaí crammed into the Macushla Ballroom in Buckingham Street to organise a protest against their pay and conditions. The leadership posted senior officers on the doors and started to take names, and 11 gardaí were dismissed from the force; including Jack Marrinan, who would later become the first full-time general secretary of the Garda Representatives Association (GRA) that is organising industrial action today.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, stepped in to mediate between the disaffected gardaí and the then Minister for Justice, a man unaccustomed to luxurious conditions himself, Charles Haughey. The dismissed gardaí were reinstated and steps were taken to both resolve the problems and create a process for relieving tensions in an organisation that cannot go on strike.

Problems soothed by spending

Peace reigned (mostly) contentedly until the Celtic Tiger took off, and gardaí took to having a ‘blue flu’ in protest at the widening gap between their pay and that of people like teachers, with whom they had had parity to date. That problem was put to bed in a time of ever increasing government spending, though the principal of having a blue flu became a reality that was bound to resurface during as straitened a time as today.

The government is looking for reductions in overtime pay, premiums for working night shifts, weekends and holidays. The pay of gardaí is a naturally complicated animal, given the nature of how they work. It has been much derided the idea that guards assigned desk jobs receive payments in lieu of the unsociable hours they no longer get to work. But, if that has become a part of their take home that they base their family budget on then we’d have a hard time getting guards into vital desk jobs if it meant the very backwards incentive of a pay cut in return for career progression. Thus, there is a law of unintended consequences in cutting various payments to gardaí that should be considered.

The government is continuing their process of blunt blanket cuts, and so they are asking all workers affected by shifts and unsociable hours and so forth – mainly frontline workers – to accept the same calibre of cut as they go looking for pen pushers to give up allowances and oddities in their pay packets. There is no discrimination in the world of well-paid politicians, senior civil servants and union bosses who hide bureaucrats behind frontline workers in their negotiations. There is never any notion of closing a quango and using the money to pay for gardaí to – heaven forbid – get paid more for working nights than nine to five.

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No justification for sedition

Nevertheless there can be no justification for gardaí to engage in sedition, such as going on effective strike or refusing through work-to-rule to uphold the peace as ordered by the government and the Garda Commissioner. There is a mutual obligation between the gardaí and the government, that they will uphold the peace come what may; and the government must treat them specially from other groups in recognition of their role and the burdens they bear without right to industrial action.

The gardaí deserve a better deal on their pay; we need more of them and to provide them with more equipment and backing. If our political leaders are too feeble minded to see this and take action on it, however, the gardaí must not endanger the stability and order of the country through industrial action.

They must, in effect, be the bigger men.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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