Will the public service always be a scapegoat?

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Will the public service always be a scapegoat?

IT was never great being a public servant in this country. The old race memory always played havoc with whatever sense of fairness and justice we managed to generate after throwing off the shackles of colonialism.

Public servants in general are regarded with no small amount of resentment and I would even go as far as to say that some of us still view them as descendants of the Castle administration.

I remember once, some years ago, when a hard-working and very dedicated civil servant I knew, passed away. “He was a lovely man,” I said to an acquaintance. “He was indeed, but he was a typical civil servant,” came the grudging reply. It knocked me for six and I didn’t know what to say. The only good civil servant, it seems, is the one who bends the rules.

This, to say the least, is a most unfortunate colonial hangover because it means that, despite all our ethical endeavours, we’re still as incorrigible as ever and, worse still, we’re probably irredeemable. It also means, however, that the public service will always be the scapegoat for whatever financial woes the country is forced to undergo – an easy target when it comes to the dearth of public sympathy.

Even now, when we’re in the middle of an obvious recovery, the term public sector pay is enough to drive some of us bananas. Every demand for pay restoration is met with fierce opposition, and now a call from the unions for the removal of the pensions levy imposed on public servants in 2009 is being seen as downright anarchy.

Even among those who don’t carry colonial hang-ups, there is a general view that public servants are a privileged lot, with secure jobs and guaranteed pensions. There is, of course, another view too – that they should know their place and stop whining, even though most of them are living close enough to a state of poverty. They can’t even revolt because they’ll be met with revulsion.

I was a public servant once myself and, to be honest, I never liked the term. It made feel like I was bonded. The job wasn’t that well paid – otherwise I might have stayed - and it wasn’t that secure either, especially if you were any way hot-headed. I remember once, reading through some Local Government rules and regulations and coming across a section dealing with ‘sackable offences’. I can’t recall now what they were, although I presume fraud would have been one. However, the one that made me sit bolt upright, while it imprinted itself indelibly on my memory, was ‘kicking the authority’. Maybe it was just a figure of speech, but I can tell you that I kept my head down and my feet firmly on the ground after that.

Anyhow, I think it’s time we changed the archaic term ‘public servant’ or ‘civil servant’ to ‘public worker’. Maybe then we’ll finally see them as one of our own and accord them due sympathy in their pecuniary plights. And maybe the Government won’t be so fast to use ‘divide and conquer’ tactics in their resistance to justifiable pay demands from those on the public pay roll.

Nevertheless, I’m delighted to hear that some sections of the public service are finally being appreciated and that nurses, in particular, may now be in line for a better pay deal because they have wisely made themselves scarce, and won’t accept the crumbs from the table or the terrible conditions anymore. If more public servants did likewise, we’d be in a right pickle, so maybe we should appreciate them all while we have them.

The secondary teachers in the ASTI union are a case in point. They have suffered undeniable pay discrimination for the past seven years and have been forced to put in fake extra working hours so that the ever grudging public won’t ever again be able to say ‘teachers have it so good with their short days and their long holidays’. If we could, we’d keep them in until midnight. It’s called dealing with the politics of envy.

Now, the teachers have rejected the latest pay offer at great financial cost to themselves and their families, because it did not properly address the unjust discrimination suffered by young teachers. The way the Minister and the Department are reacting, anyone would think that they rejected it out of sheer cussedness. But isn’t it time to by-pass the Minister and the Department altogether and take this blatant pay discrimination issue to the European Court of Justice – while we still have an EU?

Meanwhile the Minister, announcing further plans to make the Irish education system the best in Europe within a decade, says that we’re lucky to have so many dedicated and committed teachers. In that case, why don’t we treat them fairly – even pay them more than they’re worth to keep them? At the same time the Department is insisting on turning all teachers into robots with the aim, no doubt, of replacing them with real robots in the years ahead in case they go and make themselves scarce like the nurses. The trouble is that nobody knows who is dictating educational policy in this country anymore, but it isn’t the public and that’s for sure. If they were, things might be even worse for the teachers.

Now, I don’t know if you could call public service a vocation, especially when the public likes to act like the master of the house. I don’t know either if you could call teaching or even nursing a vocation. But it’s a handy term to use when we feel like exploiting those who are trying to earn a living working for us.