Am I alone in feeling puzzled as to why revelations about the scale of our banking crisis seem to be followed so swiftly by outpourings of rancour towards the public service?  (The chart shows how interest in the public sector, measured by number of web searches from Ireland, surged after the first anouncement of the bank guarantee scheme in September 2008, and again after the publication of the NAMA legislation in September 2009.  The current surge, following the fallout from Minister Lenihan’s speech and the conclusion of talks on the proposed public sector agreement on March 30th is too recent to appear clearly on the chart). After all, there is no direct connection between the financial burden that the failings of bankers have imposed on the state on one hand, and the perceived failings of public servants on the other.  There is, of course, a fiscal connection: the property bubble that fed reckless behaviour in the banking system also promoted (through its accompanying stamp duty receipts) the political fantasy that it was possible to increase spending on public services and reduce taxes at the same time.  But it is unclear why this mismanagement of the economy should have resulted in such extraordinary levels of hostility to the public sector as a whole.

The argument in favour of urgently addressing the ‘structural deficit’ created by the collapse of the property market through dramatic cuts to public expenditure – even as the state makes almost unimaginably high financial commitments to the banking sector – appears to centre on the reaction of the notorious ‘bond markets’ which, we are told, will punish us if we don’t mutilate our society in this way.  I am unqualified to comment on the merits of this argument – although Michael Taft has an amusing commentary on it over on progressive-economy.  But even assuming that the argument is correct, and that we have no choice but to reduce our public services and lower the standard of living and working conditions of our public servants, why should the process be accompanied by such bile?

There are two kinds of explanations discernible in public discourse.  One is that there has been a spontaneous upsurge of mass anger at the extravagant terms and conditions prevailing in an inefficient and ‘bloated’ public sector.  But there are reasons to be more than a little suspicious about this.  The hostility has come in surges marked by subtle but interesting changes in the terms of the debate – from a focus on the supposed ‘pay premium’ to one on the security of tenure enjoyed by (some) public servants and on our ‘gold-plated’ pensions.  The argument about pay differentials appears to have lost some energy in the face of unarguably severe reductions in pay, and also, I suspect in the context of the reversals of pay cuts to senior civil servants, and of pay increases at NAMA and Anglo-Irish Bank.  Furthermore, research showing that pay differentials between public and private employees were greatest at the lower end of the income scale must have increased the risk that people might begin to think unacceptably bad terms and conditions in segments of the private sector formed at least part of the problem.   The current hyperbole surrounding job security and pensions will likely diminish in the face of similar ‘real world’ insights.  It will dawn on us that not all employees in the public sector enjoy permanent positions.  We will remember that security of tenure is indeed one of the reasons why, historically, so many Irish families encouraged their children (daughters in particular) to enter the public service – but that these are our relatives, friends and neighbours.  And anyone who takes a deep breath and thinks calmly for a moment will realize that the absence of pensions in the private sector is the real pension problem faced by the country.

So what other explanation is there for the waves of public sector bashing?  Members of the union leadership have suggested that anti-public sector hysteria has been cynically orchestrated.  They have argued – as Jack O’Connor did on Monday’s ‘The Frontline’ – that the underlying motivation has been to reduce pay across the board, in the private as well as the public sector.  A venerable strand of labour market theory in sociology suggests that employer groups are better able to foment divisions amongst employees when the workforce is ‘split’ across ascriptive social categories like race and ethnicity.  So what, if anything, makes the public/private divide in Ireland so amenable to this kind of manipulation?  The recent growth in public sector occupations has largely taken the form of an increase in professional female occupations.  The numbers of people employed in public administration, education and health grew by about 180 thousand between 1998 and 2007, but fully 130 thousand of those people were women working in education and health. (The data are derived from Table 1.2 in a report by the ESRI to the Equality Authority. Women comprise the great majority of public sector employees (about 70 percent in 2007 if we treat those three sectors as a rough approximation; 64 per cent in 2006 according to an analysis of the National Employment Survey).  Correspondingly, the public sector accounts for a substantial proportion of all female jobs (about a third in 2007).  In this context, a comment reported from one of the recent teachers’ conferences  – “We are not overpaid babysitters” – is telling.  I believe that when the history of the present moment is written, the anger directed at the public sector will be understood as part of a wider pattern of social contention surrounding the transformation of social care and education from a vocation – associated mainly with religious organizations and with women whose primary role was perceived to be that of unpaid worker in the home – to a set of modern professional services.

There is more to it, of course.  The cynical amongst us will think it rather convenient that the public should be so distracted when vast public resources are being transferred to zombie banks and ghost developments.  And it must be acknowledged that some commentators are sincere in their belief that the private sector is always and everywhere superior to the public sector, even though their unwavering faith in this dogma seems extraordinary in the face of the global financial crisis.  But it is no coincidence that, over the coming weeks, so much will depend on the votes of teachers and nurses.

Jane Gray