Industrial relations in the public sector – Ireland

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 10 Diciembre 2008


Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

This report presents an overview of industrial relations in the central government and public sector in Ireland.

1. Structure of the public sector in your country

The definition of the public sector commonly accepted and used in your country. What are the different sectors covered (e.g. central government, local government, health sector, education, others)?

The public sector is defined as the whole of the activities, organisations, institutions or services, for which the state or its representatives can be regarded as the employer, and whereby the organisation, the goals and the operation thereof are determined by public authorities and underpinned by public funding.

As in most industrialised countries, there are a number of core areas which can be regarded as comprising the integral parts of the public sector in Ireland. These include the civil service, the health services, local authorities, the education services, the security services of the police and defence forces, the prison service, and finally non-commercial state sponsored bodies, which may be developmental, advisory or regulatory in nature. In addition to these bodies, which together are termed the public service, the public sector also encompasses commercial public enterprises. These companies are owned by the state but governed by government appointed independent boards, and operate within a framework that is essentially established and controlled by a government Minister.

The definition of the central government sector commonly accepted and used in your country.

What are the different sectors covered?

Central government comprises government departments, the civil service, prison service. Under the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956, civil servant means a person holding a position in the Civil Service, and the Civil Service means the Civil Service of the Government and the Civil Service of the State.

The following data:

Table 1. Employment and population
Year Central government Public sector Total Employees (all economy) Total Population
All   All   Men Women Men Women








1,946.164 (2002)

1,971.039 (2002)

















No gender breakdown was available for some of the data in table 1 above. The last accurate population census was for the year 2002.

Table 2. Central government employment
Year Open-ended of which part-time Fixed-term of which part-time
Men Women Men Women Men Women Men Women







Please clarify whether central government employment includes: a) school teachers; b) NHS employees; c) armed forces and police; other non-ministerial employees. If data include these groups of employees, please indicate their numbers (or estimated share).

There is no data on the proportion of central government employees on part-time and fixed-term contracts.

Please indicate whether fixed-term employment and part-time work are typical of certain organisational areas in the central government sector (for instance, top job positions rather than lower-level occupations) or group of workers (such as employees approaching retirement, new recruits, women, technicians, and the like)

Fixed-term employment and part-time work tend to be found in lower-level jobs in central government, with women occupying most of these positions. Job sharing is also fairly common in central government departments.

Please indicate the presence and quantitative relevance of non-standard employment relationships in the central government sector, and especially of temporary agency work and service contracts with individuals or other non-standard contractual relationships that are important in your country.

There is no quantitative data on the extent of non-standard employment relationships in central government, but it is fair to say they remain the exception rather than the norm. However, in recent years, such arrangements have become more common and, indeed, more controversial.

Successive national agreements have provided for the employment of temporary and part-time staff ‘in certain limited circumstances’. More recently, the outsourcing of public sector work to private sector agencies has become a highly controversial issue.

The new national pact, ‘Towards 2016’, contains various provisions on public sector outsourcing, in that previous restrictions on the outsourcing of ‘core work’ agreed under the previous national agreement, Sustaining Progress, have been jettisoned. Clause 2.9 in the new deal – service delivery options – affords the Government and public service employers greater scope than hitherto to farm out public sector work, as follows:It is accepted that there can be situations where, without affecting the essential ethos of the public service, work can be carried out or services delivered more effectively or efficiently, or both, by the employment of temporary staff, contracting out of work to the private sector or outsourcing it to other public service bodies or a combination thereof.

2. Employment regulation

Public sector vs. private sector.

Do (certain) public sector employees enjoy special status compared with private sector employees?Do all public sector employees have the same status or are there differences between different groups of employees, as, for instance, between civil servants, clerical employees and workers?

If public sector employees enjoy special status(es), please specify:

The distinctive features of (each) public sector employment status, highlighting the main differences with the status of private sector employees (and, if relevant, among the various public sector statuses). In particular, indicate whether such differences involve the rights: i) of association; ii) to bargaining collectively; iii) to strike.The requirements that must be fulfilled to gain (each) such special status(es): i) pass a public examination; ii) achieve a certain tenure in the position; c) in terms of nationality; d) other specific conditions.

Central government. Please indicate whether and how this special employment status regulation applies to central government employees.

Yes civil servants enjoy what can be termed a special status. Civil servants still tend to enjoy a higher level of employment security than private sector employees, and, notably, greater protection from dismissal. However, this changed somewhat in 2004, and the traditional perception that civil servants ‘never get fired’ may change before long, because recent legislation takes the dismissal of most civil servants out of the political realm.The Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) legislation, published in 2004, allows Secretaries-General of Government Departments and Heads of Offices to dismiss and apply disciplinary sanctions to all civil servants below the rank of Principal Officer. Up to that time, the dismissal of any civil servant effectively needed a Ministerial order, which made it difficult in practical terms, except for very serious offences. The granting of this power to the Secretary-General/Head of Office – effectively the chief executive – means that this sanction may be used more often than it has been in the past.However, civil servants at or above the general service grade of Principal – or its equivalent – come under a different system. Instead of Ministerial dismissal only, they can be dismissed by the Minister on the written recommendation of the Secretary General/Head of Office. This provides a safeguard in that they cannot be dismissed by the Secretary General alone or the Minister alone, in the event of personal difficulties with either. Secretaries General and Heads of Offices can still only be dismissed by the Government as a whole, effectively requiring a Cabinet decision. It is interesting to note that this was the only method of dismissal for all civil servants before 1997. The converse of these new powers for top civil servants is that all of those who were not appointed by the Government (i.e. anyone below Secretary General/Head of Office, including those Principal Officers and above who still have some Ministerial protection) now will have access to the Unfair Dismissals Acts for the first time. This in itself is a major culture change for the traditionally secretive civil service, as it will mean the opening of difficult situations to public scrutiny at the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

3. Please fill in the following table:

Table 3. Status of central government employees
Year Total employees Status A (please replace by the name of the status) Status B (please replace by the name of the status) Status C (please replace by the name of the status)
Men Women Men Women Men Women







N.B.: add further columns if required

Not applicable (see above).

Please indicate the elements of the employment relationship of central government employees which are regulated by:

Specific legislation.Collective bargaining.

In your answer, please refer specifically to elements such as recruitment procedures, pay (see also below), working time, work organisation, job security and employment protections, social security.

The employment relationship of central government employees is regulated by a mixture of legislation and collective bargaining. Some of the legislation, such as provisions regulating working time and minimum wages, is general in that it covers all employees, but some is also specific to the civil service.

For instance, the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments Act 2004 reforms the recruitment processes within the Civil Service and other public service bodies under its remit, the primary intention being to facilitate more open recruitment practices. The Act is a major piece of legislation which will enable Civil Service Departments and Offices to recruit staff directly.  It will provide greater flexibility and enable Departments and Offices to manage their organisations more effectively. The Act provides among other things for the dissolution of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission (CSLAC) and the establishment of 2 new bodies: the Public Appointments Service (PAS) and the Commissioners for Public Service Appointments (CPSA).  The establishment of the Commissioners for Public Service Appointments (CPSA) marks the beginning of a new era in public service recruitment by offering Civil Service Departments and Offices an option to be licensed to recruit staff. The new Commission will have the important role of regulating recruitment under the Act and ensuring that high standards of probity are maintained in the system.  The Public Appointments Service (PAS), also established under the Act, will act as the centralised recruitment, assessment and selection body for Government Departments and other public service bodies within its remit.

The Civil Service Regulation Act 1956 regulates the tenure, certain aspects of pay, retirement, discipline, of civil servants.

A scheme of Conciliation and Arbitration for the civil service was introduced back in 1950, and the Civil Service also has its own third party dispute resolution institution, the Civil Service Arbitration Board. Conciliation consists of joint councils of management and employee representatives which consider claims before them and issue an agreed report. The vast majority of issues are resolved at conciliation but where they are not they may proceed to arbitration, provided they are arbitrable under the terms of the appropriate C&A Scheme. At arbitration, management make their presentations in rebuttal of union submissions and both sides must then await the finding of the arbitrator. The findings of the Arbitration Board are sent to the Minister for Finance and the other appropriate Minister, whom have one month to approve the report or submit it to the Government. The government is not obliged to accept the Arbitration Board’s findings but under most of the schemes – the local authority scheme is an exception – it is required to move a motion in the Dail (Irish Parliament) if it wants to vary a finding. The rejection or amendment of a finding is quite rare.

In the C&A schemes for civil servants, officials from the Finance Department work closely with officials from the Departments of Education, Justice and Defence. The personal involvement of Ministers in these sensitive areas is not unusual, either to sort out differences at official level or, on rare occasions, to negotiate directly on claims. A unique feature of the civil service scheme is that a network of staff panels evaluate any claims from recognised unions or staff associations before they are forwarded to conciliation.

National pacts also regulate the employment relationship of central government employees – notably pay. For instance, the new national agreement, ‘Towards 2016’, sets the pay rates of civil servants, and also sets out a modernisation and change agenda – which civil servants are expected to cooperate with. This modernisation agenda encompasses more open recruitment, more competitive merit-based promotion procedures, performance management measures, attendance management pension reform.

The pay of civil servants is also regulated by the Public Service Benchmarking Body (PSBB), whose task is to benchmark the pay of public servants with private sector comparators. The first public service benchmarking review awarded public servants average pay increases of 8.9% overall. For civil servants, top civil servants were awarded almost 14%, while some of their lower-ranking colleagues received just over 6%. A second benchmarking review is now underway, and it is to issue its findings in 2007.

A separate pay body, the Review Body on Higher Remuneration in the Public Service, sets the pay of senior civil servants, as well as other top public servants.

Please, briefly illustrate whether and how reform of employment regulation in the central government sector since the 1990s has affected:

The status of workers.

The main change affecting the status of civil servants has emanated from the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) legislation, published in 2004, (altering the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) legislation), which allows Secretaries-General of Government Departments and Heads of Offices to dismiss and apply disciplinary sanctions to all civil servants below the rank of Principal Officer. Also, the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act 2004 (see above) changes the status of civil servants, in terms of enforcing more competitive recruitment and promotion procedures.

The balance between legislation and collective bargaining in regulating the various dimensions of the employment relationships.

In recent years, the employment relationship has increasingly been regulated by legislation, much of it emanating from EU directives, and, accordingly, the balance has swung towards the legalisation of employment relations. Despite this, collective bargaining plays a significant role in regulating employment relations – particularly through national social partnership agreements.

Other relevant industrial relations dimensions, such as representation, conflict and its regulation.

Since the 1990s, it is clearly the case that conflict has become increasingly institutionalised and proceduralised. In view of this, the dispute resolution role of third party dispute resolution agencies has become increasingly prominent.

Please, briefly illustrate whether and how reorganisation and restructuring in the central government sector since the 1990s, for instance through the establishment of special agencies or the separation of specific bodies and offices, has affected:

The status of significant groups of workers.The balance between legislation and collective bargaining in regulating the various dimensions of the employment relationships.Other relevant industrial relations dimensions, such as representation, conflict and its regulation.

The most significant, and controversial, issue in relation to restructuring has been the Government’s decentralisation plan. By way of background, back in 2002, the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, introduced plans to relocate almost entire Government Departments, offices and - for the first time - non-commercial State-sponsored bodies, to provincial towns and cities. At the time, the intention was that some 14,000 civil servants would be located outside Dublin, or about 47 per cent of the service. However, a number of public service trade unions have raised issue with the government concerning this drive towards decentralisation, and progress has been slow. At the current juncture then, a longer time-scale is envisaged than originally thought. In view of this, a target has been set in relation to 2,130 civil servants scheduled to move in the first phase, in what amounts to a strategy, at least in part, of going for easy wins. The new target dates set for these first moves are between the end of 2006 and the end of 2008. It is expected, on the official side, the process can be completed by 2010.

3. Pay levels and determination

Please indicate:

The presence and relevance of collective bargaining on pay in the central government sector.

See above. The pay of central government staff is set by national agreements and the Public Sector Benchmarking Body (PSBB) – which makes pay comparisons with the private sector.

The number and scope of bargaining units on pay within the central government sector.

Pay is set at national level.

Do minimum wage levels vary across the different bargaining units within the central government sector? Are there common minimum wage levels in the whole public sector?

Minimum wage levels are regulated by a statutory national minimum wage, which covers all employees (is common to all), and is currently €7.65 per hour.

Is there a single job classification system for the whole central government sector?

Not sure about this question.

Wage levels and wage increases in the central government and private sectors since 2000 (table 4). If there are great variations across bargaining units within the central government sector, please briefly illustrate such variations.

Table 4. Central government and private sector: wage levels and increases since 2000 (average)
Year Central government Private sector (industrial earnings)
Level € Annual increase % Level € Annual increase %































The figures for the private sector above consist of the earnings of industrial workers in all industries. They do not cover the whole private sector.

The presence and relevance of variable performance-related pay in the central government sector. Please indicate whether variable pay is particularly relevant in certain bargaining units or organisational areas (for instance, top job positions, officers, or other occupations).

In recent years, performance-related pay has become a more common feature of public sector pay determination, particularly in the higher civil service positions. Subject to the total awards not exceeding the 10% pool limit, individual participants can receive performance-related awards of up to 20% of basic pay. Decisions on the awards are reached by a new ‘Committee for Performance Awards,’ made up of two top civil servants and three representatives from the private sector. The decisions are made on the recommendations of the Secretaries General in each department concerned. The PRP Scheme was established on foot of recommendations by the Review Body on Higher Remuneration in the Public Sector in a report dated September 2000.

Another major development in the area of PRP, but covering the whole public service, including the civil service, was the decision to create a Performance Verification Group (PVG) process under the last national agreement, Sustaining Progress, in 2003. This PVG process is to continue in the new national agreement, Towards 2016. The establishment of these five PVGs, which have the power to formally sanction – or withhold sanction – of both the pay element in national wage deals and separate public sector benchmarking payments, marked a major new development across the public sector. In essence, cooperation with the public service modernisation and change agenda contained in national agreements, and industrial peace, is expected in exchange for sanction of wage increases. Therefore, it constitutes a carrot and stick approach. In addition to the independent chair, each PVG has equal trade union, employer and independent members representing customers/service users. Indicating how significant these groups are, the PVG for the civil service covers 30,000 workers.

Are there any form of “benchmarking” of wage dynamics in the central government sector with other public sectors or with the private sector? If yes, are industrial relations actors involved in such benchmarking activity?

Yes. See above. The Public Sector Benchmarking Body (PSBB) was established to compare public service pay with comparators in the private sector. The first benchmarking report was issued in 2001 (recommending average increases of 8.9%), and the next is due in 2007. Industrial relations actors are involved in the PSBB, including former union leaders.

4. Union Presence and density

Please provide information on:

Trade unions which are present in the various bargaining units of the central government sector, their number, affiliation, representational domain, membership, and the sectoral union density (data by gender). Please fill in the following table:

Table 5. Trade unions
Union Affiliation Representational domain (group of workers represented) Bargaining units where the trade union is present Membership



Public service workers






Higher civil servants






Lower ranking civil servants






Middle civil servants




E (specify name)


F (specify name)







Sectoral union density





N.B.: add further rows if required

The main civil service unions are outlined above. There is no breakdown for male and female members. The figure given is total membership. All the unions are affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which is the peak association.

Please provide information on the diffusion within the central government sector of craft unions, professional unions, or unions which are not affiliated to peak associations.

The central government sector has traditionally consisted of specific civil service unions, though this has changed in recent years, given that IMPACT has become a general public service union. IMPACT and the CPSU are currently in merger discussions. The PSEU was also initially involved in merger discussions, but dropped out some time ago.

Are there any formal procedures or rules which aim to assess the representativeness of the various unions? If yes, please, briefly illustrate the content of such procedures or rules. Do these procedures or rules affect the access of the various unions to trade union prerogatives or to the bargaining table? If yes, please specify such effects and any possible limitations.

There is an unwritten rule that in the civil service only unions composed of civil servants will be recognised. However, this policy was relaxed somewhat when IMPACT retained civil service recognition, though its membership is no longer composed solely of civil servants, due to membership expansion and mergers.

5. Employer representation

Please provide information on:

Who does represent the central government at the bargaining table? Are there specific independent bodies, such as agencies, or negotiations are carried out under the responsibility of political actors, such as ministers?

When national deals are being negotiated, Central Government is represented at the bargaining table by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and various Ministers, as well as senior civil servants. The Secretary General in the Department of the Taoiseach plays a major role in the negotiations.

If negotiations are carried out by specific independent bodies, please indicate how they are organised. In particular, specify whether there are guidelines or other directives set by political actors and how the tasks of the independent bodies are carried out. For instance, negotiations have to follow specific stages?If negotiations are carried under the direct responsibility of political actors, please indicate how they are organised. For instance, do negotiations take place under the responsibility of a single ministry, for instance the Finance Ministry, or are they carried out by a delegation or in a different way?

  1. are carried out by a delegation of Ministers and senior civil servants, rather than a single Ministry.

Do collective agreements in the central government sector have to pass an ex-post “validation” procedure, for instance to certify their compliance with budget constraints? If present, please briefly illustrate such procedure and the consequences of failure to pass it.


6. Collective bargaining and conflict in central government

Please provide information on:

The structure of collective bargaining and, in particular, the number and scope of bargaining units, both at central (national) and decentralised (workplace and territorial) levels.

Collective bargaining in the central government sector in Ireland predominantly takes place at national (peak) level.

The duration of agreements and the presence and content of peace obligations.

National agreements have tended to span a three-year period. The new national agreement, Towards 2016, is for 27 months. It contains industrial peace provisions under the heading stable industrial relations climate.

The key paragraphs on industrial peace in the national deal are as follows:

The parties recognise the importance of stable industrial relations and are committed to maintaining a well-managed industrial relations environment to minimise disputes affecting the level of service to the public. A stable industrial relations climate has important benefits for the general public and the public service itself. These benefits include the provision of uninterrupted services, improved productivity and staff morale, increased public confidence and the maintenance of Ireland as a desirable location for foreign direct investment.

Many public services differ from services which are provided by the private sector in that they are essential services which the public cannot obtain from alternative sources. Providers of essential services and their staff, therefore, have a special responsibility to ensure that they have well developed communication channels and to seek to resolve problems before they escalate into industrial disputes. If the problem cannot be resolved then it is agreed by all parties to take up all available dispute resolution mechanisms (both statutory and non-statutory).

The parties are agreed on the importance of confidence in regard to wage developments. Specifically, employers expect unions to adhere to the terms agreed and unions expect the terms agreed to be applied to their members.

This Agreement:

Provides that no cost-increasing claims by trade unions or employees for improvements in pay or conditions of employment, other than those provided for in Sections 27.17 and 27.20, will be made or processed during the currency of the Agreement;

Commits employers, trade unions and employees to promoting industrial harmony; and precludes strikes or other forms of industrial action by trade unions, employees or employers in respect of any matters covered by this Agreement, where the employer or trade union concerned is acting in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement.

The main issues of collective bargaining by referring to the latest renewals.

The main issues of collective bargaining in the central government sector are also contained in Towards 2016. They relate to pay, commitment to modernisation and change, improvements in recruitment and promotion systems, staff deployment, and attendance management.

Levels and recent trends in conflict.

Like most sectors of the Irish economy – public and private sector – industrial action in the civil service has been rare in recent years. However, one exception stands out. The longest running strike in the history of the civil service took place in 2003, when over 200 clerical staff employed in local offices of the Department of Agriculture in the west of Ireland engaged in a strike lasting nearly 13 weeks in pursuit of improved promotional structures.

The presence and main features of forms of regulation of labour conflict and collective dispute resolution procedures. Please indicate whether such rules are specific to the central government sector, or apply to the whole public sector, or are general and cover both public and private sectors.

The main forms of regulation of labour conflict in central government have been referred to under question 2(3) above. The Conciliation and Arbitration Scheme applies specifically to the civil service (and also the Prison Service). The industrial peace provisions referred to in 6(2) above also apply.

7. Commentary by the NC

The main IR issues in the central government sector in Ireland at the moment are: the roll-out of the Government’s scheme to decentralise a number of civil service jobs from Dublin to the regions; the degree of modernisation and performance enhancement expected over the next few years; and the second Public Service Benchmarking Body (PSBB) report, due out in the second half of 2007. These would seem to be three of the crunch industrial relations issues.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in central government going forward will be to facilitate more competitive open recruitment to civil service posts. The roll-out of the decentralisation programme is also presenting a major challenge.

Tony Dobbins, Industrial Relations News

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