I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Part of the Union

Brian Sheehan

‘Fighting for the Clerical Grades’: A History of the Civil, Public and Services Union 1922-2017, by Martin Maguire, IPA/Fórsa, €30

A just-published history of the Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU) charts the union’s development from before independence to its final act – a merger with two other public service unions to form the 85,000 strong Fórsa trade union. Anything but dull, it is has its share of revealing anecdotes, as well as charting the development of a union that represented lower-ranking public servants across more than a century of political, economic and social change.

Starting with how the union dealt with the British state, Martin Maguire’s account moves through its relationship with the new Free State, how it coped with movements in civil society, its relationships with the other civil and public service unions and associations – and with the broader Irish labour movement. Though commissioned by Fórsa, Maguire says the book was researched and written “without any interference or intervention”.

Maguire is an expert in the process of state formation, focusing on the relationship between the state and bureaucracy. As the union changed and developed over more than a hundred years, its leadership had to manage the difficulty and tension inherent in its relationship with a powerful and evolving state.

Included are some revealing internal political battles, differing perspectives on wage bargaining; attitudes to political parties, political figures and key public servants; how the Irish economy and society changed over time; the evolution of and practice of social partnership; and the union’s successful strategy on equality issues, especially in regard to gender.

As the union (which had various names before its final one, Civil & Public Services Union) became the key organiser of women in the civil service, it had to fight gender discrimination on pay, conditions and status. This lengthy battle was waged across various timelines against the prejudices of government, of Irish society “and, often, of the wider labour movement and the other civil and public service associations”. Ultimately, the union had to go to the European courts to secure justice, but even that wasn’t always enough to overcome deeper prejudices.

It would, as author himself says, have been “unhistorical” to avoid the internal and external tensions that often convulsed the CPSU, which led to the annual delegate conference sometimes making “unwelcome headlines”. What those on the outside could see as an “earned” reputation for left radicalism, was always oppositional in principle, “burning energy in factionalism and divisions”. The author argues that the union came out of these struggles “energised and ready to renew the fight for better conditions and higher pay”. Yet Maguire clearly has a strong preference for and confidence in negotiated solutions. He is surely correct to suggest that the civil and public service associations have played a significant, yet neglected, role in creating the modern trade union movement, something this book set out to redress.

One of the oldest of the civil and public service unions, the union’s roots go back to nineteenth century agitation by civil service assistant clerks in Dublin, seeking direct negotiations with the UK Treasury. “It was their inspiration,” Maguire writes, to form a single united association of the clerical grade for the whole civil service in Great Britain and Ireland. But after winning the right to representation and negotiation, this was snatched away by the new post-independence Irish government, something Maguire describes as a form of “enforced autocratic rule”.

If one man epitomised this approach, it was Joseph Brennan, who had been the senior officer in the chief secretary’s office under British rule. Described by Maguire as “remote and cantankerous”, Brennan, who had secretly assisted the Irish delegation in the Treaty negotiations by preparing financial briefs, is described as “deeply conservative”, someone who “maintained a nineteenth-century Gladstonian horror of Government spending”. As the book demonstrates, however, this kind of thinking was common at the time.

The union’s members, who with the advent of the new Irish state, had been anticipating a “ruthlessly just” competitive system as far as advancement was concerned, were sorely disappointed. Optimism was replaced with foreboding as national freedom “meant an attack on workers, trade unions and on the civil service”.  he Cumann na nGaedheal government, having won the military struggle and after enacting the Free State constitution, “increasingly relied on its ability to prudently manage the meagre state finances to assert its legitimacy”. The civil service became the obvious target for reductions in expenditure.

Under the Fianna Fáil government that followed, finance minister Sean McEntee might have been expected to be a radical change from the “arid conservatism” of his predecessor, Ernest Blythe. McEntee’s introduction to politics had, after all, been in James Connolly’s Socialist party of Ireland. The new government’s 1932 Budget promised increases in expenditure on road-building, housing, unemployment benefit and pensions, but McEntee’s attitude toward civil servants was disappointingly similar to those of many of his contemporaries.

McEntee established two committees to examine the civil service, one of which was headed by the by now former secretary of the Department of Finance, the same Joseph Brennan that had served in the UK treasury. True to form, the Brennan Commission was thoroughly “stitched up”, as Maguire’s source puts it. A much sought-after conciliation and arbitration system would have to wait. “Things were best left as they were,” is Maguire’s succinct summary up the Brennan Commission’s conclusions.

What did change was a surge in state activity, largely driven by minister for industry and commerce Sean Lemass. This meant the number of civil servants jumped by 35 per cent to 22,421 between 1932 and 1937. It wasn’t to be Lemass’s only significant influence on the direction of government policy. He would influence industrial relations after World War Two with the establishment of the Labour Court. Later, as we know, he was instrumental in a directing a complete change in the state’s industrial policy, directly influencing how the government viewed its role in economic development. Moreover, Lemass even sketched out the outline of what would later be called social partnership, a process that Maguire treats sympathetically.

As for equality, something was beginning to stir postwar, although real breakthroughs would not come until European Community directives led directly to equality legislation. In the 1950s, while women typists made up a good proportion of civil servants, albeit in their own distinct lower grades, the notion of equal pay and marriage equality was a long way off. An ILO report in the early ’50s did presage the later European Community directives by “unambiguously” making it clear what the principle of equal pay for equal meant – the same rates of pay without discrimination based on sex.

The 1960s, as Ireland experienced an “unfamiliar rise in expectations” also witnessed a “David and Goliath” struggle between the lowly civil service grades and the state. The result was a significant pay rise, with an unforeseen side-effect: some newly recruited clerical assistants were now on a better scale than some women promoted to the higher clerical officer grade.

Meanwhile, the number of industrial disputes escalated rapidly in the 1960s. After a maintenance craft strike 1969, involving fewer than 1,500 craft workers, that led to 600,000 days lost, the government of the day established an inquiry whose report castigated “the chaotic state of industrial relations … and the ineffectiveness of Congress in disciplining the labour movement as well as the incoherence of the FUE (Federated Union of Employers)”. (Arguably, Congress still suffers from this weakness today, unable to enforce agreements, instead having to rely on government sanction to uphold the integrity of bargaining agreements where union affiliates break them.) The leadership of the labour movement as the 1960s ended, according to Maguire, “seemed to be focussed on conflict rather than negotiation”. It is one of the strengths of his book that the author sets developments within the CPSU in this broader political, economic, social and industrial context. For the reader, the sometimes arcane internal processes within any trade union are, therefore, enlivened by a much wider lens than found some trade union histories.

The equality thread runs through the book. Evelyn Owens, a future Labour Court chairman (unbelievably this is still the official description of the role today, even if the office is held by a woman) addressed the union’s 1970 annual conference by advising  members to shed their traditional respectability and recognise that they were indeed workers. Owens identified the key struggle as being about equal pay for women – something the union would act on with no little element of financial risk to itself two decades later. As Maguire explains, by the end of the 1970s women were still not faring well within the trade union movement in the struggle for equality. None were represented on the executive councils of ICTU; in the CPSU – where there-quarters of its membership were women – there were just two women on its eleven-person executive.

Meanwhile, the 1971 report  by the Commission on the Status of Women recommended the ending of the marriage bar, noting that it was not just discriminatory but wasteful of talent. Maguire charts the equality battle through the decades, up to the union’s major strategic decision to pursue the legal route on equal pay, a role it adopted during the social partnership years when pay rises were confined to whatever was negotiated nationally.

1987 was, in many ways, a pivotal year in the union’s modern history. Through a new cadre of leaders it was recognised that a significant shift in how the union perceived itself was required ‑ and in how it conducted its business. The annual delegate conference (ADC) that year had recognised the need for a core of activists, the cultivation of expertise in industrial relations, and the need for a press officer – all key changes. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. As the author records, a motion that sought to make the conference a “smoke-free zone”, was defeated.

It was also when the long-serving and “singular” general secretary, Billy Lynch, retired after serving for almost two decades. “There was … a sense that the Union was confronting a pace of change that Lynch was not recognising,” Maguire writes. Indeed, Lynch’s valedictory message to the members began with a “bitter attack on anyone that had opposed him”, contrasting his enemies with his own dedicated work: “I created a Union where candidates for my post as General Secretary were deemed to be applying for a post that would be the pinnacle of a Trade Union career,” Lynch is quoted as saying. He finished with a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way”, which Maguire writes was a “sad note on which to bow out”.

Lynch had started as a messenger boy in the post office and had advanced “through his own ability and energy”, but he had only one mode of engagement, “aggression, whether with the Department of Finance, union members at the ADC, fellow trade unionists at Congress, or the permanent staff at union headquarters”. Staff were never allowed to address him by name, but only by title. “It was notorious that when the Union HQ was on Leeson Street, a member of the staff had to stand and keep a parking bay vacant for him until he arrived in the morning, even in the pouring rain.” Lynch also maintained tight control of negotiations, “and by refusing to train activists in skills had limited the Union’s impact at branch level”.

But as Lynch himself had predicted, the post of general secretary did attract considerable interest. Eight candidates were selected for interview by a board of eight women from the executive committee. “It was probably unique in the culture of Irish trade unions for an interview board to be almost entirely female,” the book says. Greg Maxwell, the “well-regarded” general secretary of UPTCS (Union of Professional and Technical Civil Servants) was chosen but declined the post, so after more interviews the position was offered to John O’Dowd, one of a new generation of activists. O’Dowd was also associated with the Workers Party. His first annual conference (ADC) was a “baptism of fire”. One of those on the interview panel, Ursula Nolan, the finance secretary, while proposing the motion to confirm O’Dowd’s appointment, said during an “extraordinary and emotional speech”, that she felt assistant general secretary Paddy Woods should have got the job as “promotion is a reward for a job well done”. Out of loyalty to the union, however, she would accept the majority decision of the executive committee. One branch indicated that while they still supported Woods, they would vote for the ratification of O’Dowd. But O’Dowd’s detractors made “pointed references to his youth and his ease with the media, one comparing him to Daniel O’Donnell!” As Maguire says, this sort of objection was evidence of a civil service mentality “within some of those present that saw this as a case of seniority being denied”. Some members were treating the union “as if it was a department of the civil service and John O’Dowd was an outsider”. Eventually, they voted to approve O’Dowd after a “decisive intervention” by his erstwhile opponent, Paddy Woods.

Just when it seemed O’Dowd was “home and dry”, however, a further vote was required to approve the appointment of two new industrial secretaries: Blair Horan and Fergus Whelan. David Hughes and Rosaleen Glackin were appointed as additional assistant general secretaries, with equality officer duties assigned to Glackin. Hughes came from the old LGPSU (Local Government & Public Services Union). All four were to be key appointments, the union investing in their further education and training. Familiarity with employment law was becoming an essential knowledge tool as it gradually encroached on the terrain of traditional industrial relations.

A strategy to tackle low pay was developed. While pressing for a decent living wage within the framework of centralised bargaining, this campaign would be fought along three fronts. First, to negotiate for promotions, rather than extra money in so-called pay “specials”; second, to push for the “one-grade” service through merging the clerical assistant into the clerical officer grade; and third, to use equality legislation coming from the European Commission to challenge low wage levels of women in the clerical grades.

Maguire shows how the union – led by Glackin – went on to win a series of impressive legal victories, several of them ground-breaking, in the national and EU courts. A strategic decision was made to devote financial resources to this campaign. It was risky, as wins in the courts were by no means certain and the costs were considerable. And even with a series of successes, by June 2000, it was “undeniable” as Maguire observes, that the clerical officer grade remained “a civil service ghetto for females in a heavily gendered grading structure”.

The book also details the rise and fall of social partnership, the attempt at “grade restructuring”, public service pay benchmarking and performance management. All of this was before the impact of the financial crash, not just on the partnership construct, but on members’ terms and conditions.

Setting the scene for the first social partnership agreement, the Programme for National Recovery, Maguire correctly identifies ICTU general secretary Peter Cassells – a former CPSU member ‑ as the “key intellectual force” behind it. Other union leaders rowed in behind the idea, which was hardly surprising, because while nominal earnings had risen by 75 per cent between the collapse of the economy-wide National Understandings in 1980 and 1986, real earnings had fallen by 7 per cent. Charles Haughey and his labour spokesman, Bertie Ahern, had both worked at cultivating good working relationships with the trade union movement while in opposition. They were to put this to good use when a minority Fianna Fáil administration replaced the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, intent on securing a tripartite consensus-based deal centred on pay and tax relief. As Maguire observes, Haughey “promoted the perception within the media that Fianna Fáil was the ‘real’ Labour Party”.

Whatever about this perception, it was clear that many of the top union leaders were relatively agnostic when it came to who and what party they were dealing with. British-based unions and some of the smaller Irish-based unions opposed social partnership, the former generally on ideological grounds like their UK colleagues. But the majority, which included the former ITGWU and the FWUI, allied with several key public service unions, backed the pragmatic impulse behind social partnership. Haughey was influenced by how the Germans conducted collective bargaining, while the unions feared that the UK’s Thatcherite approach to trade unions could influence political thinking here. That fear may have been exaggerated, but it was genuinely felt.

Indeed, it is striking how differently from the UK pay formation has played out in Ireland, particularly since 1987. This has been the case in both the public and private sectors. More than a decade after the collapse of formal social partnership, pay negotiations are still influenced by the success ‑ in industrial relations terms ‑ of those two decades of consensus. Industrial peace, a hallmark of the era, in the public and private sectors, remains a feature of the industrial relations scene here.

Today, one only has to look across the water at the series of strikes in the UK, affecting public transport, the universities, nursing and so on. This turmoil stands in contrast to the scene in Ireland, where 370,000 public servants recently voted in record numbers to extend the Building Momentum pay agreement with the government, thereby ensuring two more years of industrial peace in the public service. It is a difference that largely goes unremarked on in the media here, partially one suspects because industrial relations is no longer covered to anything like the extent that it used to be.

Meanwhile, Maguire’s take on the financial crash reflects the dismay of CPSU members and other public servants who suffered pay cuts and other curbs, as well as working extra hours “for fre”’. The public service was targeted, he writes, “fuelled also by an ESRI report suggesting that public servants enjoyed a wage premium over the private sector”. Although reflecting the righteous anger felt by the union and its members, Maguire is also dispassionate when discussing the threat to the sovereignty of the state, the arrival of the Troika and so forth.

Peace talks between the public service committee (PSC) of Congress and the government resulted in the “Croke Park Agreement”. A major element of this retrenchment agreement, although it meant the tacit acceptance of the reality of cuts in public service pay, was a commitment by government that pay restoration would begin in 2011 and give priority to those on €35,000 and below – the union’s clerical grades. “This was fought late into the night by Blair Horan with strong support from Peter McLoone of IMPACT, and proved to be crucial in subsequent negotiations in setting the basis for the flat-rate and targeted increases to the lower paid,” Maguire observes.

The subsequent gradual restoration of pay and conditions was spread over several agreements as the country found itself – sooner than expected – entering a new era of prosperity. Ultimately, this allowed for the almost complete rowing back on the hated impositions on pay and other terms of employment. In essence, the approach to collective bargaining negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, a department often seen as the bête noire of the public service unions, was quite similar to how social partnership had been conducted. This “shadow” version of partnership resulted in much more than pay restoration; pay increases were back in 2022, and the much resented “lost” hours that public servants had to work under the 2013 “Haddington Road Agreement” (it followed the Croke Park Agreement) were also restored.

It fell to the union’s final general secretary, Waterford-born Eoin Ronayne, to guide the CPSU towards a necessary, if inevitable, decision to merge with the PSEU and the much larger IMPACT, to form Fórsa in 2017. The new union has the size, strength, cohesion and financial resources to face a sophisticated and well-resourced management with confidence, Maguire concludes. In fact, this was just what Evelyn Owens had envisaged in her speech at the union’s 1970 conference, pressing for a single public services union at a time when the minister for finance recognised and dealt with a scarcely credible fifty-three civil service associations. The 2017 merger also delivered – to a very significant extent – on one of the goals of a 2013 ICTU-wide reform plan, seen as necessary for the very survival of a viable union movement: one big union for civil and public servants.


Brian Sheehan retired in 2022 as editor of Industrial Relations News. Priced at €30, copies of ‘Fighting for the Clerical Grades’ A History of the Civil, Public and Services Union 1922-2017 are available from the IPA and Fórsa. Contact [email protected]

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