Adjournment Matter. - National Museum Dispute.

Wednesday, 8 October 1997

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 152 No. 3

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Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

The issue I am raising relates to the industrial dispute at the new headquarters of the National Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin 7. The official opening took place on 18 September but it was unfortunate that the IMPACT union felt obliged to have a one day strike that day to protest against any meaningful action to resolve the dispute that has been going on for a considerable period.

The result of that one day strike was that, while the opening took place in the Taoiseach's constituency, he could not attend because he felt unable to pass the picket. Consequently, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, was left in the unenviable position of having to pass a picket to perform the opening on the Taoiseach's behalf. I am sure that caused considerable embarrassment to the Minister, although she spoke to the strikers outside and made a commitment to do all in her power to resolve the dispute at the earliest possible opportunity.

Approximately 2,500 guests were invited to the launch but only 500 attended. Many more people were outside the museum with the pickets than were inside at the opening ceremony. Some £70,000 was spent on the launch, but it was a severe embarrassment to everybody and the whole day was marred by the industrial dispute.

The situation is particularly serious considering the new museum was an initiative of the Labour-Fianna Fáil Government of 1992-94. It was one of the flagships of development with literally tens of millions of pounds being invested in this enormous [233] development of the old Collins Barracks. At that time it was the oldest military barracks still in use in Europe. Now it is to be put to this heritage use where, for the first time, we would be in a position to put on display the many treasures in the National Museum which, because of lack of space, we were unable to exhibit. The intention was that at last we would have sufficient space to bring these treasures out of the dungeons, dust them down and put them on display. Unfortunately none of that work has taken place because of long standing industrial action, and the few people who visit the museum at present are going into largely open, empty exhibition areas. That is a disaster. I am raising the issue as it is one of concern in my constituency. Many people are employed by the National Museum and many others are affected directly by it. As I understand it over the last 15 years there have been no normal promotions and approximately half of the curatorial staff are in acting positions or in lieu of that they are on part time contracts. That is totally unsatisfactory for a national museum in terms of personnel and resources. It is a festering sore the matter has been ongoing for some time. I understand Minister de Valera met the union in the last week or so and she has already indicated she will do her utmost to resolve the matter. I also understand there were some difficulties with the Minister for Finance and I am not sure to what extent she has been able to bring her persuasive powers to bear on him in this affair.

The point of raising this matter on the Adjournment is to draw the attention of the Government to a serious issue that has been going on for a considerable period of time. It is sad that it should take place in this context with dedicated staff who do not feel that they are being properly recognised, when they are not being given the managerial and promotional structures they would have expected, leading to their union, IMPACT, taking industrial action. Various forms of industrial action have taken place in terms of non co-operation in the preparation of exhibitions for the museum and this is the first strike that took place. They are not telling people not to go into the museum, they are encouraging them to go in but they explain to them the reason they are will see so little in the museum is due to the industrial dispute. I urge the Minister to look into the matter and to bring to his colleague the concerns that have been expressed locally and by the union in question, and see if we can get an early resolution of the dispute.

Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Éamon Ó Cuív): Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Seanadóir Costello as ucht na ceiste seo a thógáil. Caithfidh mé a rá nach é seo an chéad uair dom ar ais sa Seanad ó ceapadh mé mar Aire Stáit, bhí mé anseo lá eile, ach seo an chéad deis cainte a fuair mé anseo. Mar is eol don Seanadóir Ó Coisdealbh thosaigh mé mo shaol pholaitiúl [234] anseo, bhí mé sa Seanad fiú sular toghadh mar chomhairleoir condae mé.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Sár-Seanadóir a bhí ionat freisin.

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  I share Senator Costello's view that there is a compelling need to resolve the present industrial dispute involving members of the professional and technical staff in the National Museum. The National Museum is at a key point in its development with the recent opening to the public of phase one of the Collins Barracks project. It is my earnest wish that a practical resolution of the dispute is reached in order that the National Museum is in a strong position to tackle the many challenges that lie ahead at this key time in its development.

The very fact that this is such an important time in the museum's evolution makes it all the more unfortunate that when at last we are endeavouring to ensure that it achieves the high regard it truly warrants as one of our foremost cultural institutions, we are faced with industrial action. Despite this, however, I know the Minister is personally committed to the achievement of that status for the National Museum. I know that is also the aim of the museum management and staff, as well as the officials in my Department and also the dedicated members of the caretaker board under their able chairperson Barbara Nugent who have worked unrelentingly on the museum's behalf.

I must stress that the present industrial action in the National Museum was inherited by the present Minister. Its origins go back over many years, however, to posts lost due to voluntary early retirement schemes in the late 1980s for example, which decreased the number of promotion outlets within the National Museum. In what might be considered a small staffing pool such as the National Museum, the effect of these lost posts was magnified and resulted in a lack of promotions for many years and a consequent build up of frustration amongst the professional and technical staff.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the staff in dispute at present are generally members of grades unique to the National Museum, recruited specifically for the National Museum who, unlike their general administrative and clerical colleagues also serving in the museum, have not traditionally enjoyed access either to promotions or lateral movement to positions in other Departments, thus emphasising further their comparative lack of career development opportunities. Under the recent PCW agreement with IMPACT, however, from which the professional grades in the National Museum amongst others benefited significantly, the position of professional staff with long service in their grade without promotion was especially recognised by the awarding of additional long service increments to those on the maximum points of the scales.

It has been the practice in my Department to [235] recognise staff who, temporarily or for an indefinite period, are carrying out additional or higher duties by way of “ex-gratia” or “higher-duties” payments, and a number of those involved in the dispute have benefited from such an arrangement. Therefore, despite the negative picture being portrayed, there have been improvements in conditions for the members of professional grades in the National Museum in recent times, all of which have been negotiated through the normal channels and without recourse to industrial action.

The recruitment of staff with skills in particular disciplines such as conservation, marketing, information technology, skills which are essential in a modern museum, but had not been provided previously in the National Museum, was a particularly positive move which will benefit considerably both the National Museum and its visitors, and will help the museum to achieve its full potential. I regret that as part of their industrial action the staff are not co-operating with these new staff members whose skills have been sought for so long in the National Museum.

The number of visitors to the new facility at Collins Barracks is a clear indication of the huge level of public interest in the preservation and the display of our national cultural heritage, which serves only to emphasise the need to resolve this dispute. The popularity of the exhibitions in Collins Barracks thus far, even in their incomplete state, demonstrates the outstanding ability of the professional and technical staff of the museum to present our cultural heritage in a way that is both visually appealing and informative to [236] the public. The success of the museum at Collins Barracks thus far, even under the cloud of an industrial dispute, is a clear indication of the enormous potential of the National Museum which I aspire to help it reach. Anybody who was there on the day the museum opened would have the utmost admiration for what has been achieved by the staff.

I have no doubt that the staff involved in the dispute, who have given excellent service to the National Museum over the years, have no wish to prolong this dispute, but every Minister is compelled to consider all claims for promotions and additional staff within their Department — even what might be perceived to be a minor claim — in the context of the wider public sector pay and staff numbers policy.

Ainneoin na bhfíordheachrachtaí a bhaineann leis an aighneas seo, tá sé dearbhaithe ag an Aire d'fhoireann an Ard-Mhúsaeim — agus, mar a dúirt an Teachta, chas an tAire leis an bhfoireann — agus dearbhaím féin don Teach tráthnóna inniú go bhfuil gach uile iarracht á dhéanamh le teacht ar réiteach i dtreo is go mbeimíd in ann an fuinneamh atá ginte ag an bhforbairt éachtach seo i mBeairic Uí Choileáin a choinneáil ar siúl agus go mbeimíd in ann a chinntiú go neartóidh an tArd-Mhúsaem a ionad lárnach san oidhreacht chultúrtha s'againne. Bheadh súil agam ar deireadh go dtiocfar ar réiteach ar an aighneas seo go luath. Tá gach uile duine ag su il le go mbeifear in ann dul ar aghaidh leis an obair iontach atá ar bun san Ard-Mhúsaem.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 2.30 on Wednesday, 15 October 1997.

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