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Column: Despite the critics, the Croke Park Agreement is working

Croke Park is polarising – but it wouldn’t have survived this long if it wasn’t working. Here’s ten reasons that prove it, writes Niall Shanahan.

Niall Shanahan

This opinion piece is a response to Eddie Molloy’s article published by The Journal.ie yesterday on 10 problems with the Croke Park Agreement.

THE CROKE PARK Agreement is proving to be the Marmite of political and industrial relations discourse. You either love it or hate it. The polarised nature of the issue tends to pull people into a fairly frenzied public sector versus private sector debate. A lot of detail and facts get lost in the crossfire. But the Croke Park Agreement was devised as a practical solution to an immediate and very damaging economic crisis. If it wasn’t working, it wouldn’t have survived.

So what is Croke Park doing and why has it survived? Are the critics right? And what happens when it expires?

1. Protecting services

The critical advantage of the Croke Park Agreement is that it ensures the continuing delivery and prioritisation of key public services at a time when our loss of economic sovereignty means cuts are inevitable. Put simply, the State (the employer) is broke. But demand for the State’s services has risen sharply. This demand is the normal effect of a recession and our rapidly changing population. There are more children in schools, more people with medical cards, more people in need of social welfare services.

The challenge for Croke Park is to meet that demand, shape the services to be responsive, but do it while the amount of money spent on those services is reducing, along with the numbers of people delivering the services.

2. Reducing costs

The state needs to ensure a number of things in this instance. First, it needs to secure a reduction in costs. Following two pay cuts, totalling 14 per cent for the average public servant, the Croke Park Agreement facilitated further reductions in public service numbers from a peak of 320,000 in 2008 to a targeted figure of 282,500 by 2015.

To date, this has ensured an annualised and sustainable reduction in spending of €1.5 billion. That’s €1.5 billion every year, not just this year. By 2015, net of additional pension costs, this will have risen to a saving of €3.3 billion.

3. Reducing numbers

It’s not that long since serial critics of the public sector referred to it as ‘bloated’, so it seems disingenuous now for the same critics to be expressing moral panic at the reduction in the number of public servants. At present, the reduction in numbers is ahead of target: 30,000 people have left public sector employment since 2008. But (and this is the important bit) services have, by and large, remained in place, with workers taking on the extra work of their departed colleagues, and agreeing to more flexible work practices in order to achieve this.

4. Fast tracking reform

This has been done through cost-saving modernisation measures like reduced annual leave, reduced sick leave arrangements and more working hours. All of these reforms were achieved far more quickly than at any time in the history of the State, and without any disruption to services. You might not think reform is happening fast enough: but there simply hasn’t ever been another 18-month period in the history of the state that saw sick leave provisions reduced, working hours increased, privilege days abolished, and annual leave reduced.

5. Guaranteed industrial peace

All of this has been done with zero industrial unrest. “So what?” may be your response to that. After more than twenty years of relative industrial peace, it’s something we might take for granted. But international decision-makers and investors recognise its contribution to deficit reduction and repeatedly say it’s been vital to the rebuilding of Ireland’s international reputation. The kind of thing that’s going to help us out of bailout territory and back into the mainstream.

6. International credibility

In trying to negotiate a write-down of the country’s massive debt burden – which is a huge threat to the future prospects for everybody in Ireland – the stability, security, savings and reforms that Croke Park provides is helpful too. It gives us added credibility with those we have to negotiate with.

7. And it’s about doing the right thing

Croke Park represents a collective effort on the part of every single public sector worker in the country to protect and improve the services they provide despite the cuts in spending. Nobody’s expecting a slap on the back. There is, quite simply, a desire on the part of this workforce to do the right thing. They are doing this in what can only be described as an atmosphere of hostility.

8. Some critics have resorted to making stuff up

It is healthy and right that the Croke Park agreement is debated and discussed. But news stories in recent weeks have falsely claimed that savings are overestimated and that the Troika has misgivings about the agreement. We are accustomed to this form of hostile coverage. It has accompanied the agreement pretty much from the start. But if they are so convinced that Croke Park is bad for the country, why do they have to make up their arguments?

9. Whatever happens next will be informed by what’s already been achieved

The Croke Park agreement is scheduled to expire by 2014. The current economic crisis, however, appears to have some distance left to run. That is why many stakeholders, including those who are hostile to some of the provisions of the existing agreement, have expressed a desire to see a successor negotiated and agreed in due course. It’s too early to say when this might take shape.

10. Despite everything, its legacy will be positive.

Right now, despite the critical assaults, the Croke Park agreement is working. If it’s allowed to complete its task the positive legacy of the Croke Park Agreement will be that, despite one of the worse crises ever faced by this state, our public services prevailed. Despite all the available evidence of what is being achieved, I don’t expect our critics to reevaluate their position until long after this crisis has passed.

More details of how savings and reforms are being achieved in different parts of the public sector are available here and include practical examples of what I’ve outlined above.

Niall Shanahan is the Communications Officer for IMPACT trade union.

Read: 10 problems with the Croke Park Agreement >

Column: Irish labour costs making us uncompetitive? Hardly >

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Niall Shanahan

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