The civil service finally hits back

LIMERICK City Council - soon to be united in wedlock with the county - has a Latin motto on its crest which reads in English “ancient city, well versed in the arts of war”. I always thought it was a bit far-fetched. Now I’m not so sure. I hope it won’t be diluted in the forthcoming union, for the Corporation is going to need all the martial skills it can muster if something isn’t done soon to curb our increasing hostility towards public servants.

LIMERICK City Council - soon to be united in wedlock with the county - has a Latin motto on its crest which reads in English “ancient city, well versed in the arts of war”. I always thought it was a bit far-fetched. Now I’m not so sure. I hope it won’t be diluted in the forthcoming union, for the Corporation is going to need all the martial skills it can muster if something isn’t done soon to curb our increasing hostility towards public servants.

We were all a bit gobsmacked last week when we learned that one local authority, Cork City Council was sending its most vulnerable staff – those most in contact with the public - on a self defence course to counter threats and intimidation from the very people they serve. It read like a reflection on our civilized society, but austerity, it seems, has brought out the Terry Alt in all of us.

Limerick, hasn’t considered any such move to equip its staff to deal with public aggression, but maybe it should. It’s not that long ago since I reported on a court case where a traffic warden in the city was bitten by a woman driver who had just received a parking ticket. Actually the only time I ever had to control my own murderous intent – inherited no doubt from my faction fighting forebears – was after getting a second parking ticket in a single day in Limerick. The old race memories of persecution get the better of me sometimes.

The response to the Cork plan was interesting. The public was outraged at the idea that public money would be spent by public servants trying to protect themselves against public intimidation. Sinn Fein said that the council was sending out the wrong message, and suggested that the threatened staff should do courses on conflict resolution and mediation instead. Well it worked for them, didn’t it?

The council has now played down the self defence aspect of its plan. Only a handful of staff on the front line will be doing the course and it will certainly not involve training in the martial arts - more about diffusing tricky situations rather. But how do you diffuse a situation where someone is going to bite you for issuing a parking fine?

I can see now why the HSE has disguised one of its most sensitive services – the assessment of medical cards - under a Box number. As I said last week, you can’t fight with a Box number.

While on the subject of last week, let me say that I came in for a bit of stick from some quarters over one statement, so there is something that needs to be cleared up. Okay, I do tend to get carried away a bit at times, hence the title of this column. Last week, when I disclosed the fact that medical card applications were no longer dealt with in local HSE offices, I may have given the impression that the whole thing had been outsourced, lock, stock and barrel, to a back office, or black hole as the case may be, in Calcutta – which, I’m now happy to be able to inform you, is NOT the case. The service has merely been centralised and transferred to a Box number in 
Finglas.

How was I to know that the Box number belonged to the HSE? Anyhow, some people were so upset by my wild assumptions that you’d think I had incited the grey army to violence, leading them to meet in secret all over the country during the week hatching plans to invade 
India.

Having said that, I still don’t know why so many medical card applications and renewal applications have failed to make it to the said Box number in Finglas. You’d be amazed at the number of people who have to go on the national airwaves to vent their frustrations at being told that their forms or requested information, which they promptly sent on, have never been received. So angry are they that if they even caught sight of a public official of any description, they’d almost certainly go for the jugular.

Personally, I think that they may have taken on more than they can chew in that back office in Finglas. Centralisation was definitely needed because apparently some counties had an inordinately high number of medical card holders compared to others. But then some counties are more affluent than others and some counties have more persistent public representatives than others.

Anyhow, I’ll bet they didn’t put enough staff in Finglas to deal with the avalanche. They must be inundated by this stage, maybe even buried under the pile of paperwork that supposedly was never received. But the bottom line is that they are safe from the public’s fury.