Setting a good example? Pictured: delegate at ASTI teachers union conference heckles the Minister with a megaphone

Easter is a time for chocolate eggs, bunnies and the Pope’s message of peace. But there is no peaceful talk at the annual conferences of some of the big public service unions this week. Every year at this time we get a major bout of unchanging whinge. Last week, it was the Gardai and this week it will be the teachers unions ASTI and INTO. Despite the often attractive settings – the guards met in Killarney- it is always the same, with delegates giving out about everything, except addressing their own actions and how they could serve the public better.

We all know how great a job the guards do, but there’s always room for improvement. Like, how come the police are barely visible on our main streets during rush hour or how come almost half of Garda stations have no internet access? But you won’t hear this addressed at the conferences, which are more about making self-regarding speeches and picking on easy targets.

Worse still, we have teachers unions this week telling us all what a terrible life they have – yet they have shortest hours, longest holidays and very good pay, conditions that the rest of us, and European teachers, can only envy. But the unions are always angry – professionally angry, theatrically angry. And of course they will undoubtedly bring up the’ reckless bankers’ and other convenient whipping boys when in actual fact they should be celebrating how well off they are.

We also have the disrespect and downright bad manners they so often show to the Ministers who come to talk to them. Any self-respecting Minister should make it quite clear that it’s not part of their job spec to go into the bear pit with a group acting like badly behaved children. One assumes that these public servants, or ‘activists, can get as worked up as this because they have so much time on their hands. Funny how you don’t see shop assistants or factory workers acting like this and behaving with permanent anger. They just get on with their work and are pleasant to people.

But it was ever thus with these unions. For no matter how good things are, they still complain. It was the same during the Tiger years, even with benchmarking. Or, because of benchmarking. RTE’s Morning Ireland used to be known as ‘Moaning Ireland’ such was the litany of demands and complaints from unchallenged quangos and trade unions. No wonder we went broke. It’s a bit like Vincent Browne’s definition of poverty. No matter how much things improve, it’s never enough. They just have to improve more – with somebody else’s money. But that’s the effect of spoiling. If these unions had a bit of tough love, or felt the Thatcher effect or a CJ Haughey slapdown, they’ have more respect for the system. But the more you give in to people, the less they respect you, as benchmarking FF have discovered.

The reality is our public servants have got a very fortunate let off in our ‘fiscal corrections.’ Unlike in other EU countries, there were no compulsory redundancies and the pay cuts were minimal compared to the decimation visited on the private sector. The first of these cuts was, heaven forbid, a contribution to their own gold -plated pension, a thing the rest of us can only dream of.

This big let-off  is thanks to the Labour party, of course, and a weak willed FG, who ring-fenced their public sector colleagues in the Croke Park deal and then, for good measure, in the Haddington Road deal, making sure that the only public servants likely to be among the 300,000 people at the welfare offices were those working there, at the hatch, with secure jobs.

Just look at the Haddington Road deal – public servants on over 65,000 will have their pay cuts reversed in three years. Nurses have to work an hour and a half extra per week, and teachers lose their supervision/substitution allowance but will have it restored in 2017.  For the unions, this is great news, but they daren’t say so. Better instead to keep up the moaning, as has always been done.  No recognition here that the rest of us will have to pay for this big let off  in longer hours and higher taxes, including among lower paid civil servants themselves. Meanwhile, the squeezed middle and the retail and SMEs continue to get hammered.

This is the great irony, that those with could complain the most are ground into silence and just trying to survive whereas those who should be grateful, such as many public servants like teachers, have the time and the job security to moan to high heaven. But was it ever any different?