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Thursday 29 September 2016

Andrew Lynch: Olive branch from Donohoe leaves no excuse for bus strike

Dublin Bus
Dublin Bus

Ireland is in danger of missing the bus. We are now less than 24 hours away from a crazy public transport strike that will cost our economy millions and will ruin many people's May bank holiday weekend.

There is still just enough time for common sense to prevail - but right now that particular commodity seems to be in precious short supply.

To give Paschal Donohoe his due, nobody can accuse the Transport Minister of not making an effort. Last Tuesday, he gave an important concession by announcing that Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann drivers will not be forced to transfer to private operators once 10pc of the routes are put out to tender.

In other words, those employees not only have their jobs guaranteed - they can be sure of keeping the same terms and conditions as well.

True, this falls a long way short of the unions' full demands. SIPTU and the National Bus and Railworkers' Union (NBRU) say they will not be happy until the Government drops its privatisation agenda completely.

At the very least, however, Donohoe's olive branch should give union leaders enough reassurance to call off tomorrow and Saturday's strike and resume talks at the Labour Relations Commission.

The Minister is a famously polite man. Even he, however, could be forgiven for throwing a tantrum over the unions' response to his new proposals.

Essentially they have given him the two fingers, insisting that this weekend's industrial action will go ahead - and promising five more strike days on May 15, 16, 29, 30 and 31.

It is time for a reality check here. Just like every transport dispute in living memory, this one will eventually be resolved. The only question is how much commuters have to suffer before both sides are mature enough to reach a compromise. Sadly it appears the answer is an awful lot.

unresolved

Of course, Donohoe's intervention still leaves plenty of issues unresolved. How can the Government guarantee workers' pension rights with a private company? Will payroll costs still be a factor in the bidding process? Could we have a situation where new drivers are employed at lower rates of pay to do exactly the same job?

From the commuters' point of view, however, none of this should be their problem. Once again, they are being left stranded while unions go through the dreary ritual of strike action before doing what everyone knows is inevitable anyway.

As usual with any public transport row, it is students, pensioners and poorer people in general who will end up paying the heaviest burden.

If the bus companies were actually profitable, they might have some moral justification for telling Donohoe to butt out. In fact, as the Minister has constantly reminded them, they received €180m of taxpayers' money last year to buy new vehicles and subsidise loss-making routes.

As long as Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann bury their heads in the sand over this commercial reality, they risk going the same way as Aer Lingus - another semi-state company that saw its lunch eaten by rivals and had to be privatised more or less completely.

The unions are openly terrified by what might happen in 2019, when the Government's Public Service Obligation to fund these companies runs out. Donohoe claims that an improving economy means they should have nothing to worry about.

Either way, it is completely ridiculous to strike in 2015 over something that may or may not happen in four years' time - and many passengers left with no way of getting to work tomorrow would use much stronger language.

An 11th-hour deal is still not impossible. Speaking at the Oireachtas Transport Committee yesterday, Bus Eireann CEO Martin Nolan promised he would "fight up to the last minute" to avoid strike action.

"I think the public sympathy will disappear very quickly," he warned. Frankly that is a bit of an understatement.

Some of Paschal Donohoe's colleagues wonder if he is too nice to succeed as a Cabinet minister. Now would be a good time to prove them wrong.

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