Living in the real world of Ireland

When recently contributing to an RTE programme on the current state of the nation, Professor Bridget Laffan said that “those of us in publc employment” (amongst whom she counted herself), and paid for by the public purse, should be sensitive to the plight of fellow citizens in the private sector.

When recently contributing to an RTE programme on the current state of the nation, Professor Bridget Laffan said that “those of us in publc employment” (amongst whom she counted herself), and paid for by the public purse, should be sensitive to the plight of fellow citizens in the private sector.

Her comment did not need any elaboration. All of us are aware of that plight. The public: secure, permanent, pensionable. The private: at the mercy of market forces, loss of jobs; the self-employed now unemployed and without access to social assistance; and all victims of bad governance and the imprudent, if not criminal, decisions of a banking system. The secure versus the insecure!

It would seem obvious that in the circumstances of these contrasts, sensitivity would be a normal response to the sufferings of fellow citizens, not only from the perspective of common humanity, a fellow feeling, but in the interests of social cohesion. Even ordinary discretion would advise against drawing too much attention to the perks; the automatic payment of bonuses without any reference to performance, and the very generous annual leave.

But self-serving is not in the same league as sensitivity, and it is inevitable that in these difficult times contrasts will out, especially when small private businesses are closing their doors because of the level of rates imposed by local authorities. And sensitivity goes out the window and great storms of insensitivity come in, when it is revealed, as it has been recently under Freedom of Information, that there is little parity between the levels of annual leave enjoyed by the public as against those in the private sector.

Irish County Managers, for instance, have 42 days of paid leave, in addition to other “special days,” such as days-off-for-the-races, and ordinary Bank Holidays available to all citizens.

This combination means, in practical terms, that Irish County Managers can be away from their desks for the best part of two months in a year, while their equivalent managers in the private sector enjoy just three weeks’ annual leave. It has also been revealed that in many levels of the public service 33 days’ annual leave (in addition to special days and Bank Holidays) are the norm in comparison to 21 days in private employment.

These inequities, overlooked in times of plenty, are now emerging in these leaner times, when the private sector of the economy is besieged and retracting, and when, it seems there is little appetite for change or reform in the public sector, if judged by the slow-moving implementation of the Croke Park Agreement. It would seem that, far from being a done deal, every facet of this agreement is now being challenged. And at least one Civil Service Union, at its recent annual congress, threatened strike action.

It would not be insensitive on the part of the private sector if it were to remind the public sector that it does not generate wealth of itself. Its function is that of subsidiarity, creating the climate, the infrastructure for the wealth-producing private sector. Many years ago, John Healy in his thought-provoking column in the “Irish Times” calculated that it took at least four workers in the private sector to maintain one in the public.

The two sectors have drifted so far apart, in salaries, wages and persk (42 days versus 21?), that the Healy equation must now be meaningless.

In today’s Ireland, in times of economic hardship, images are important, especially when they evoke comparisons. The images of Government Ministers driving, each separately, in expensive chauffeured cars, to a meeting to discuss the current crisis, will long remain in the memory of ordinary people. It was a scene devoid of imagination and sensitivity and contributed to the defeat of Fianna Fáil in the last election.

And while expertise has to be well rewarded, both in money and conditions of employment, some concessions have to be made to time and place and images. At a time of recession in business, there has to be some equilibrium between the apparent perks enjoyed by local authorities and the ratepayers who pay the bills.

The place in which we all live, the real world of today’s Ireland, is a democracy. It should be a fair society, and fairness, like justice, as the truism says, must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done. Perceptions of unfairness to do little to hold a society together. Sharing the burden demands more than sensititivy, it is sound, common and survival sense.

We, all of us, Irish people are in this crisis together. We either swim together or we sink together. Some good, old-fashioned, ordinary patriotism would not go amiss, but then, in even tripping that word off the computer, one can hear, out there, loud, side-bursting laughter.