Ross insists he is "playing his part" as bus strikes continue

The transport minister claims he cannot wave his “ministerial magic wand” to resolve the dispute as workers gather outside the Dáil

Ross insists he is "playing his part" as bus strikes continue

Transport Minister Shane Ross | Image: Rollingnews.ie

The Minister for Transport has insisted he is playing his part in supporting Bus Éireann – but again warned that he cannot wave his “ministerial magic wand” to resolve the dispute at the company.

Shane Ross appeared before the Oireachtas Transport Committee today as a protest got underway outside Leinster House in support of the company’s striking workers.

Workers began their all-out strike last Friday in protest at the company’s plans to introduce significant cost-cutting measures without staff consent.

Management at the company have warned the cuts are necessary in order to address the “grave financial situation” it finds itself in.

SIPTU sector organiser Willie Noone again warned this morning that the proposed measures would result in losses of up to 30% for workers.

He called on the minister to “stop dodging his responsibilities” to both workers and the travelling public and establish a process that can resolve the company’s difficulties. 

Internal issues

In his opening address to committee however, Minster Ross again refused to get involved.

“I will not be dictating to management and unions about their internal issues,” he told the committee. “I will not be involved in discussions about how the Company organises itself.”

“These are areas for agreement between management and unions.

“If they require external assistance then the expert advice of the WRC and Labour Court can help them.”

Pubic Service Obligation

He said the exchequer provided roughly €230m to the company across the State’s Public Service Obligation (PSO) contracts last year.

He pledged further PSO increases in the future “as resources allow” adding that he has instructed his department to engage with the Department of Social Protection to examine the level of funding for the Free Travel Scheme.

“Let me be clear. I want to see a successful and thriving Bus Éireann,” he said. “A Bus Éireann that continues to be at the heart of public transport provision in rural Ireland and regional cities.”

He claimed that “deep down” both the company management and unions know that a deal can be reached that safeguards the future of the company for both staff and commuters – and insisted “it can be done.”

“I can't agree that deal,” he said. “Nor can this Committee. Only the management and unions can, as that deal will resolve those issues internal to the Company and which those of us on the outside have no business in dictating.”

“It will require difficult discussions. It will need flexibility and compromise. It will likely call for imagination. But it can be done.”

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin shakes hands with bus workers outside the Dáil this afternoon, 29-03-2017. Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

Travel disruption

Around 110,000 Bus Éireann customers are affected by the ongoing strike – with fears the dispute could spread to other public transport companies including Irish Rail and Dublin Bus.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the government was making “no attempt” to sort out the dispute.

He accused Minister Ross of having a “hidden agenda” aimed at undermining “the very concept of a public transport company.”

“The workers are very angry about the race to the bottom,” he said. “To a low-wage and low-cost public transport model with a draconian reduction in their overall take-home income.”

He said despite the thousands of people affected by the dispute and rural towns and citizens who are have no access to public transport, the government has reacted with “inertia and paralysis.”

He insisted that if the dispute was at Dublin Bus - or if it was affecting the capital - it would already have been resolved.

Sustainable public transport network

The Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the programme for government made a commitment to instigate a full review of public transport services to ensure the network is sustainable and capable of meeting the needs of a modern economy.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams with Bus Workers outside the Dáil this afternoon, 29-03-2017. Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

“The Government is the sole shareholder," he said. "It also has a duty and responsibility to ensure that our public services function properly and effectively. It is failing in this."

“It should agree an early debate in the Dáil on the strike and it should instruct Minister Ross to engage with the Unions and Management.”

Earlier this week Transport Committee member Mick Barry TD called for serious government investment in Ireland’s public transport infrastructure - pointing out that it is impossible to run a modern public network “on a shoestring.” 

He said it is “crazy stuff” to try and run bus services on a public service order subvention nearly 20% below what it was 8 years ago.

Bus Éireann’s subvention level decreased from €49.4m in 2009 to a low of €33.7m in 2015 – before rising to €40.8m in 2016.

Prepared to discuss

This afternoon Minister Ross moved to reassure the committee that he is prepared to meet interested parties – including trade unions – to discuss transport policy.

He claimed however that those discussions, “cannot take place during an industrial relations dispute or when a strike is being threatened.”

He said he “will always welcome” positive contributions towards transport policy debate and insisted he is committed to a review of public transport policy.