Monday 24 October 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda Kenny can halt this bus strike but first he must find a backbone

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Here we go again. For the second time in 20 months, we are being threatened with a bus strike that will leave 400,000 commuters stranded and cost Dublin retailers up to €3 million every day.

For the second time in 20 months, Enda Kenny's response is to shake his head, say how terrible it all is and then do precisely...nothing.

There is, however, one big difference between this current dispute and the strike that kept Dublin Bus off the road for three days in August 2013. Instead of just picking a fight with the company itself, union leaders have upped the ante by issuing a direct challenge to the Government's privatisation policy.

In other words, there could be blood on the floor before one side is forced to give way. In the meantime ordinary travellers are likely to suffer an awful lot of collateral damage.


It should at least be clear by now that the unions are not bluffing. Members of the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) have overwhelmingly voted to down tools for a two-hour march to the Dail on May 1, which is both International Workers' Day and the start of a bank holiday weekend.

Their SIPTU comrades, meanwhile, are dropping strong hints that this could be just the beginning of a long campaign stretching into the summer months and beyond.

The basic argument is old. Seamus Brennan called for around 10pc of bus routes to be privatised back in 2003, but talks on putting this into practice only began at the Labour Relations Commission last year.

Predictably, the National Transport Authority claims that increased competition would give consumers a much better deal. Just as predictably the unions insist that it would hurt their members' pay, pensions and conditions.

So now that talks have broken down and strike action is just a fortnight away, what does the Government have to say for itself? Speaking in the Dail last Wednesday, Enda Kenny asked union leaders to cancel their plans with about as much passion as if he was reading a bus timetable.

Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe also sounds like a man who has given up hope, recently declaring it "a real pity that commuters will be facing disruption".

If these comments sound strangely familiar, you may well be thinking of the Government's attitude to State-owned banks that charge their customers rip-off mortgage interest rates. Enda was also up in arms over this last Wednesday, thundering, "It's not fair, it's not just and it's not equitable."

The best reply came from former Fine Gael TD Peter Mathews, who was heard to sigh, "If that's the case, do something about it!"

In fairness to the Government, nobody should pretend there are any simple answers to this industrial relations stalemate. If such solutions existed, they would have been found long ago.

Just like every worker-boss row since the Stone Age, however, the bus privatisation issue will not be resolved by angry marches or megaphone diplomacy.

It can only be sorted out by chasing both sides back to the negotiating table - which makes it all the more disappointing that Enda Kenny seems hell-bent on becoming a Pontius Pilate tribute act instead.


Why must we go through the ritual of yet another strike before unions and management hammer out a compromise that everyone knows will have to happen sooner or later anyway?

Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have once said that anyone over 30 who took the bus should consider themselves a failure. This quote may have been made up by the Iron Lady's enemies to prove her heartlessness, but it does make an important point.

The heaviest users of public transport include students, pensioners and low-paid workers - exactly the sort of vulnerable people that the Government should be trying to help.

As for Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann, the NBRU's general secretary has warned that privatisation could cause both companies to go bust by 2019. The way passengers are being treated right now, that might not be such a bad thing.

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