Category Archives: Politics

Pesky Public Pensions

Those pesky public sector workers.  Them and their pensions are costing us money, and we need to sort it out.

Of course their unions are going to stand up for them, they are entitled to do so.

So runs the core of the argument by Paschal Donoghue, the minister for Public Expenditure.

It is now nearly nine years since the infamous bank guarantee, and we will be paying the cost of that mistake for years to come.  That mistake, on top of a property bubble and a global financial crisis created a financial crisis in Ireland that has cost us in an obvious business level, but also cost Ireland as a society: one just needs to look at the trolly crisis in hospitals, the cutting of resources in the Gardaí, in schools, in the broader public service.

It may have got old to say this by now, but the people being made to pay for the crisis were not the ones who created it.  The ongoing cost of the bank guarantee alone was something like €60 billion euro, with the interest costing approximately €1 billion every year. And yet, despite not being the ones to cause this crisis (it’s not over as we’re still paying the costs), members of the public service are still expected to suffer penalties.

For a while now the Fine Gael line has been that the public service bill is too high, and was part of the problem. And so, the public sector took some brutal pay cuts and changes to conditions in order to help the country as a whole deal with the mess that we, as a society, were in.

That cost has proven to be huge.

  • People have died while waiting on trollies in hospitals.
  • A&E units are swamped, leading to longer waiting times with greater stress on patients and medical staff
  • School resources cut and pupil/teacher ratios increased leading to poorer outcomes for many students
  • Longer working hours across the public service, less pay, and even less pay for those unfortunate enough to get their jobs after 2011
  • Wives and partners of those serving in the Army forced to protest because the pay is so poor

And yet, even with all this, the minister decides to push the idea that the public service costs too much and that he needs to cut where he can – with pensions the focus of today’s agenda.  Yes, we’ll finally reduce the pension levy, but must find a different way to get you to pay for the pensions.  So, um, get rid of the levy so long as we can keep the levy?

For me, there’s a premise behind all of this.  That the public service is a low-value cost, that should be cut where possible.  It’s a premise that I refuse to accept.

The public service is an integral part of Irish society, and is an excellent investment.

Just look at the work done by so many people across so many different parts of the public sector.  

  • Look at how hard our nurses and doctors work
  • Look at what teachers bring to and from their students
  • Look at the pride our navy has brought us from its mission in the Mediterranean

Fine Gael has managed to dominate the discussion of public sector pay by simplifying it to basic numbers.  An effective and healthy public service is more than a simplistic stating of the blunt cost.  The cost must be understood in context, and the value of what is achieved by the public service.  There is great value in the work being done, and it is Fine Gael that is devaluing it.

Trump and Public Discourse

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

Like an awful lot of people, I woke up on Wednesday morning to a sense of shock and disbelief.  Donald Trump had won the US election, and I just couldn’t believe it.

It was hard to stomach, because, on the face of it Trump espoused values that we have seen as being abhorrent, malign, vicious, cruel and petty.

Wednesday was a day spent in a daze, trolling through social media looking for some release of emotion – and there was plenty of emotion there.  Fear, mostly; and shock that over 60 MILLION people voted for him.

So, to put a shape on my thought: What has he said, what will he be like in power, what are the likely repercussions, and what will my reaction be?

What Has He Said?

Over the course of the campaign Trump has been a bruising fighter.  He has displayed an absolute ruthlessness in how he deals with anyone with the misfortune to cross his sights:

  • He has mocked a disabled reporter
  • He has referred to Mexicans in America as rapists and criminals (but he thinks that some are probably ok)
  • He has boasted about sexually assaulting women (and then dismissed it as locker room talk)
  • He has said if Ivanka weren’t his daughter, he could be dating her (!)
  • He tried to deny Obama’s citizenship
  • He tried to promote violence against protesters in his rallies “I’ll pay the legal fees”
  • He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States

What Will He Be Like In Power?

The simple fact is that we don’t know what he will actually be like in power.  For the very good reason that the American system has checks and balances.  There is the Senate and there is the House of Representatives.  The politicians here all care about being re-elected, and some may have their eyes on a larger prize.  I REALLY hope that they will be able to put the brakes on some of his excesses.

However, some of the signs aren’t good: his Vice President is a right wing Christian who thinks members of the LGBT community can be ‘cured’ by conversion therapy.  Hmmm.  Not to be underestimated is the sinister nature of an advisor who wants to start a register of all Muslims in America.

Public Discourse

Let’s take the idea (possible fairytale) that the checks and balances work, and that Trump doesn’t get to exert the xenophobic, homophobic, islamophobic, misogynistic ideas that he appears to treasure.

No. Even if Trump is kept in check, he has still done an untold amount of damage to Public Discourse.

You see, even if he is kept in check, his words have been uttered.  He has spoken, and he has been repeated, quoted, and (God help us) admired.

There is a trickle down (or flash flood) effect from his words.  When the head of state speaks as if misogyny, racism, discrimination and hatred are normal – then it’s fair to assume a number of citizens will take that lead.

His words alone won’t create racists – but they do give freedom to any racist to express their repugnant views.  Already, there is a lot of evidence of an increase of racism.

So, there is a lot to fear.  Will the next 4 years see the dismantling of civil society?  Will we see a rampant increase in hate crime; in sexual assault; in intolerance?

The fact that the Ku Klux Klan can announce a parade to celebrate Trump’s election means I’m not optimistic.  In other news, one Southern University had posters put up warning white women not to date black men.

My (Our) Response?

As a people, we can’t allow hatred to win.

In a number of American cities there are ongoing protests against Trump’s victory, and against the policies he as spewed.  This is partly heartening, but partly disheartening as some of the protests have turned violent (the very antithesis of what the protests were intended for)

However, correcting a slide in civic discourse is a task that falls to all of us.

How often have any of us:

  • heard racist language against someone in our presence?
  • seen a person with disability overlooked or belittled?
  • tolerated institutional racism in our own country? (Direct Provision in Ireland, anyone?)
  • seen discrimination of women?

It is the task of all of us to stand up to discrimination and hatred in all its forms.  And this only works in a spirit of nonviolence.  Look to the heroes of the 20th century – people like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King.

This kind of thing isn’t easy.  The good stuff never comes easy, but is worthwhile.  We need to speak out. We need to speak out for the socialists, the Trade Unionists, the Jews.  And yes, we need to speak out for the Muslims, for the members of the LGBT community, for the poor, in fact for any minority who’s Human Rights are being undermined.

There has been huge progress in civil rights over the past century, let’s not let the next four years undermine all of that.

And for any Americans out there – look to the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

statue-of-liberty-writing

 

Fair and Equitable?

If one is to believe his appearances on news programmes recently, Our Dear Leader is a champion of all things ‘Fair and Equitable’.  In the government’s current spat with the ASTI Enda Kenny has resorted to a regular set of phrases designed to make the ASTI position appear to be, simply unfair (and possibly inequitable).

It really is a genius piece of spin.  Had we stayed within Lansdowne Road then younger members would benefit financially.  However, this is “contingent on the introduction of certain reform measures”  (have a look, paragraph 2 of the press release).  This all glosses over the simple fact that even with this increase, new teachers (within Lansdowne Road) are still paid a substandard starting salary in comparison to their pre-2011 counterparts.

The government is excellent at trumpeting good news in a manner to hide underlying facts.  The recent announcement regarding extra SNAs is really just a Cup and Ball Trick.

But I digress – Enda’s language got me thinking that if Fine Gael really is the arbiter of what’s fair and equitable in Education, then maybe FG policy is a shining example of how to treat the Education Sector with fairness.  So let’s have a quick recap of FG policies in relation to Education:

Repeated cuts in School Capitation

Capitation is the basis for a school budget.  Each school depends on capitation to pay the bills, hire the busses, get the books, repair the leaks, etc.  While all schools have had their capitation cut – this is inequitable.  Schools with a wealthier catchment area can rely on parents to subsidise some of the expenses.  Schools in a disadvantaged simply don’t have this option.

Increase the Pupil Teacher Ratio

In a larger classroom students don’t get the same level of attention.  It’s that simple.  Anyone who is claiming that a larger P/T ratio does not affect students is either untruthful or deluded.  Students benefit when their teacher can pay attention.

Get rid of Guidance Counsellors

It’s not easy to discern what you want to do with your life, and how to pick the best subjects and college courses for you.  That’s the job of guidance counsellors, and apparently one that the Government thinks we can do without.  Sure, they’ll argue that schools can now allocate resources as they see fit.  Really?  The choice is no guidance counsellor or yet larger class sizes.  Unless the school has the wealthier catchment area, in which case it may have the resources to fund a guidance counsellor.

Reduce supports for students with Special Education Needs

Fewer SNAs, fewer resource teachers. Think about this one – the group of students with the greatest challenges in school have had their supports cut.  How about that for fairness?

Strip resources for the National Educational Psychological Service (via the moratorium on employment)

NEPS provides huge support to schools.  One facet of this support is assessment – schools get access to a NEPS psychologist, and can provide some assessments during the year.  (Well, since the cuts, that now means ONE assessment for many schools).  Again, this is inequitable – some families can afford private assessments, some cannot.

Removal of middle management posts (Assistant Principal and Special Duties)

In any career people like to have the option of professional progression.  The removal of posts has removed that option for the vast majority of teachers.  Schools now depend on goodwill to get a number of jobs done – and this is putting more stress on principals and existing post holders.

Cut Teachers’ pay (in a number of ways – USC, Pension Related Deduction, Freeze increments)

Any teacher can look at his or her payslip and see all the extra deductions that are there.  The PRD grates as we have always paid into our pension, and have viewed a pension as ‘deferred pay’.  All workers suffer under the USC.  For a number of years we have had increments frozen.  The net affect of all of this is that teachers are still being paid less now than they were in 2007.

Cut Pay for the youngest teachers

I honestly don’t know exactly how this one happened.  Some say that the unions sold out the younger workers, and others say that this cut was done under FEMPI, beyond the control of the unions.  Maybe the unions were simply out-manoeuvred.  The simple fact is that our younger colleagues are on an inferior scale, and our government is unwilling to accept the principle that NQTs are entitled to equal pay for equal work.

Cut the rates and allowances for working for the State Examinations Commission

Just about every teacher has worked for a while correcting exams.  My first time doing it I was told I was about to undertake ‘the best inservice training ever’.  And it was.  The money was also pretty good.  However that has all been cut -and a number of experienced teachers have given up.  Come June and you will find the SEC posting ads for some positions that have not yet been filled.

Cut mileage and conference allocations

Attending conferences is good for professional development.  However, new rules mean that many of these conferences now take place on weekends, and any allowances for getting there are cut.  The fact that the conferences are still taking place is a testament to the professionalism of teachers who are giving up free time to improve their professional practice.

Change the sick pay entitlements

Nobody wants to get sick – but it is nice to know that if you get sick then there is a safety net to help. However the length of time this support is in place for has been cut.  Something that adds to the worry and stress of any teacher facing a serious illness.

 

Add to all of this we have a Taoiseach who has repeatedly been unwilling to give a straight answer to the question if he would be prepared to accept the principle of equal pay.

So, it’s a bit rich when Enda talks about his government working constantly for what’s ‘Fair and Equitable’.  His policies speak far louder than his words.  Fine Gael has overseen years of cuts in education and appears to have no intention to reverse these cuts.  Fairness and Equality have nothing to do with their policies.  The only thing that seems to matter is to balance a budget.

Action On Two Fronts

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that we are now very close to a crisis in our secondary schools.  This week members of the ASTI will undertake the first of seven proposed strikes. This action has been flagged for quite a while.

Before I go any further allow me to state my own belief – this is a totally justified strike.  I am proud to be a member of a union where we are standing up for our (mostly) younger members.

At the ASTI conference in March delegates listened to newly-qualified teachers who are paid less for the same work.  They are on a different pay scale, and are losing thousands of Euro a year simply because they had the misfortune to become a teacher after 2011.

(For clarity, it’s not just the different pay scale – it’s the fact that degree allowances are now gone.  All this when the same teachers have to train for longer -a 2 year master’s degree on top of a primary degree being a basic requirement).

 

Following this, the members present voted overwhelmingly to support industrial action if the government did not restore pay parity for new teachers by September.  Of course there was no move, and the union has taken the action mandated by its members last March.

So, this action is hardly a surprise, is it?  The only possible surprise is that the union decided to take such a strong action in support of NQTs.

However, this is not the only action we’re facing at the moment.  ASTI members are not going to cooperate with Supervision and Substitution from November 7th.

Last year, the members of the ASTI voted not to become part of the Landsdowne Road agreement – we would complete our obligations under the Haddington Road agreement, but did not see enough of benefit in the Landsdowne Road agreement to make it worthwhile to sign up for it.

This meant that we would no longer undertake the famous Croke Park Hours.  Those punitive hours that were regularly denounced as being unproductive (especially seeing as out-of-school activities did not count).

Once the Haddington Road agreement ended and the ASTI did not join Landsdowne Road the government had what could be described as a hissy fit.  Though their actions may also be described as those of a bully.  Younger ASTI members were targeted specifically with having to wait 4 years for a CID, and the part-offer of removing the post 2011 payscale was rescinded.

Then things got nasty.  Part of the Haddington Road agreement was that the government would return S&S pay to teachers.  It was removed from ASTI members in a clear breach of that agreement.

The union response is this – you promised to return payment for S&S, you broke the promise, so we won’t do S&S from November 7th. This has the potential for far more disruptive than the 7 strike days.  We face the possibility of the indefinite closure of a number of schools from that day.  The biggest crisis to face schools in my lifetime.

And this particular dispute could have been avoided – but for the actions of a government determined to bully.

These are two huge fights to be taking on – and it will take a lot of determination and energy to succeed.

Even if we win there are still a number of issues between the ASTI and the government:

  • The Junior Cycle Campaign
  • Posts of Responsibility
  • Class Size

 

Some members of the ASTI have been vocal in stating that these are too many fights to take on.  These voices need to be taken seriously – there is sense in being strategic in how we deal with these issues when faced with an increasingly hostile government.

 

 

 

Stand Up

People who read this blog may know that I am no fan of Fine Gael.  Since their landslide victory in 2011 they have pursued an agenda that has led to terrible hardship amongst the poorer members of society.

Homelessness is on the rise, we still have direct provision, the health service is on its knees, we have multiple new taxes, and public servants (in the truest sense of that term) have had to make huge sacrifices For The Good Of The Country.  We were sold this sacrifice ‘For The Good Of All’, for the good of the country, and shur, dontcha know that it’s only temporary and we’ll get your pay back as soon as we can.

Well, weren’t we in for the surprise.

Across the public service workers were implicitly accused of being ‘unproductive’.  Apparently the cure for this was to cut staffing levels and ask everyone to work an extra 33 hours per year for free.  Please feel free to define ‘Productivity’ as it applies to doctors, nurses, gardai, or teachers.

Add to this the slashing of budgets, the degradation of working conditions, and a concerted media campaign have ensured a demoralised public service.  Let us not forget the fear factor.  FEMPI has been waved as a stick to go with the elusive carrot in negotiations.

Some of what has been done is reprehensible.  The different pay scales for new entrants is abhorrent.  It has also been used to drive a wedge into the unions.

You see, despite the claims that the unions have sold out their junior members, I think that its more simple and more depressing than that.  The government negotiators outmanoeuvred the unions.  I do believe the unions should have taken up the fight for young members a lot sooner.

However, as the saying goes, if the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.

The unions are finally standing up for their younger members – and in some cases the fight is about restoring pay to pre-2008 levels.

And the government are going to fight this tooth and nail.  Just look at the use of FEMPI against ASTI members following the rejection of the latest agreement.

For whatever ideological reason, some branches of the media are backing up the government on this.  In the Independent today Eddie Molloy argued that giving into the unions would ‘hurt us all’. Of course he used far more emotive language.  Also today the editorial in the Indo refers to the GRA pay claims as ‘Brinkmanship‘, and that it ‘holds us all to ransom.

This stuff is hard to stomach.  Across the public service employees have faced sub-standard wages for the bones of a decade.  And yet now that we are told that the recession is over, now that we have been asked to ‘keep the recovery going’, now that the central bank can say that government finances are 1/2 billion ahead of target (again), now we are accused of being selfish.

Now is the time for the unions to stand together and fight for reversals of the cuts that have plagued the public service.  Of course there are differences of opinion within the unions.  We are democratic organisations and difference is healthy.  But enough is enough.  We need to fight the government and its anti-public service agenda.

And don’t buy the indo.

Edit:

I love this piece on Capuchin monkeys rejecting pay inequality:

Richard Bruton and his Cup and Ball Trick

A few days ago our new Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton announced an increase in the number of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in the Irish School System.  Not just one or two, but 860 new SNAs.

This sounds brilliant, and a lot of it is good news.  But I have a fear that there is a lot of plastering over the cracks going on.  Why?  Well there are three main areas that are glossed over in the reports:

 

Population increase.

Ireland’s Population is on the increase.  The 2008 population of Ireland was 4.46 million, and the 2015 population was 4.63 million according to this site. That’s an increase of 170,000 people.

The CSO estimated that the primary school population would go from 502,300 to 556,500 in the period from 2011 to 2016.  In the same period the secondary school population was to grow from 342,400 to 368,600.  That’s a total increase of 80,400.  I think it’s fair to assume a number of those students will need the help of an SNA, don’t you?

 

Shifting Goalposts

In this Irish Examiner article I found the most misleading statement from the Minister to be that every child who needs an SNA will have one.  However, the Department of Education has shifted the goalposts regarding what constitutes “need”.  This article from RTE mentions students who need help with toilet or mobility issues.  The entitlement is restricted to those students with physical needs.

Really?

Yes, students who have physical needs require and deserve support, but what about the student with ADHD, the student who is diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder?  What about students with a range of conditions that prevent them from functioning to their best ability in a mainstream classroom?

Students who would have qualified for an SNA ten years ago are denied access to an SNA under the new regime.  This fact is being buried under an announcement that highlights a necessary increase, but does not address the very many students who have no support.  And this can only hurt their educational achievement.

 

It’s all about the Money, Money, Money

Minister Bruton has said that the money for the extra SNAs will come from his existing budget.  That really doesn’t bode well.  The Education budget has seen some brutal cuts over the past eight years.  I doubt very much that it will be possible to strip assets from one area without causing significant damage.

As it stands the Irish Government seems to be pursuing a policy of Education by budget rather than by aspiration.

And as for Minister Bruton?  He has, rather cleverly, diverted our attention to a good news story so as to distract us to the ongoing affect of continued Austerity in Education.

cup-and-ball-trick

 

On being 21

What connects Ibrahim Halawa and Walli Ullah Safi?  The fact they’re both 21.

Well, that’s for starters.  They are also locked up in prisons far away from the countries of their birth.

Walli Ullah Safi is from Afghanistan.  He was found on the side of a road in Ireland a month ago, arrested for having no ID and sent to Cloverhill prison.

‘So?’ you may say.  ‘He came to Ireland illegally, broke the law, should do the time.’

This all ignores one little fact.  Walli probably qualifies as a refugee.  Life in Afghanistan can be brutal.

I had the privilege of knowing a young lad in similar circumstances.  He managed to get into Ireland as an unaccompanied minor.  He had managed to flee Afghanistan.  And why did he flee?  He witnessed his father’s murder.  One day a group of militants came to his house, and with the family present took his dad outside and shot him.

Cold, fast, brutal.

So this young lad came to Ireland, got an education and realised that our laws wouldn’t look kindly on him.  You see our system is very hard for refugees and asylum seekers.  We lock them into direct provision centres, and we deport a lot.

I’ve since lost contact with him as he had to disappear in order to stay in the country.

It’s against this kind of a backdrop that Walli has fled his home country, it was with some hope that he came to Europe, and it was with some lack of humanity that he was sent to prison.

In prison Walli had the misfortune to be singled out during a riot and was left with a broken arm and his face slashed.  Fáilte, Walli.

Ibrahim Halawa, however, is an Irish Citizen.  2 years ago he travelled to Egypt with his sisters and was caught up in the protests which were part of the Arab Spring.  They were arrested in a Mosque – Ibrahim suffering a gunshot wound to the hand in the process.

Ibrahim has now been in jail for almost 2 years.  His trial has been repeatedly delayed, his hand has never been treated properly, in fact the structure of the trial will pretty much guarantee it won’t be a fair affair.  Amnesty International has taken up his case.

The Irish Government claims it is actively working to free Ibrahim.  So far these efforts do not include our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, calling directly on the Egyptian President to free him.  Apparently it is not the right time for him to do so.  Maybe another year, so.

So, Walli and Ibrahim are both 21.  They both have this connection with Ireland, and they have both been let down by Ireland.

 

For an excellent summary of the issues around Ibrahim’s case, read this article from the Irish Times