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Ushering in my New Respect

Posted on: April 19th, 2009

ON Tuesday morning I arrived in Leinster House to report for work. Like all the other inmates I was locked out. It was a ‘privilege’ day in the public service. Anyone who wanted to work was barred from the premises. A kind of lock-out in reverse.

Not a great example to the nation in these tough times when we are all meant to be working harder and earning less.

Maybe not quite as bad as an experience I had in the post-Christmas period when I turned up at a government department. The security man refused me admission.

Grumpy as ever, I asked if anyone at all was working there that day .

“No one,” he asserted triumphantly, barring my entry.

“And how about you then?” I asked.

“I am here to stop anyone from working,” he retorted proudly.

Game, set and match. Quite a novel sort of job.

Happily, on Tuesday, I managed to penetrate the fortress that is the Department of Agriculture.

The department was in operation. Yet the first sign of life I saw there that morning was a notice. There it was, specially printed on yellow plastic at vast cost to the taxpayer, a loud warning notice: ‘CAUTION: WORK AREA.’

It did not add ‘Do not enter, you are a public servant’, but I was tempted to supplement a little graffiti so incensed was I at the closure of Leinster House.

So the next day, spitting blood about the public service, I arrived again in Leinster House, ready to bite the head off the first unfortunate public servant who had taken a privilege day on Tuesday.

The script was ready: did they not know that this nonsense was a throwback into history, based on the long journeys some public servants were forced to make when returning from the country after a bank holiday weekend? Did they not know that nowadays people travelled daily from Mullingar, Wexford, even Roscommon?

The first guys I spotted were the ushers. Perfect victims, I thought, for a piece of my mind. Unfortunately they are the finest body of people I have ever met.

I bottled it. Ironically I asked them if they had a nice “weekend”. There was shamefully a barb in the question: their weekend lasted from Thursday night until Wednesday morning.

“Not bad,” replied Mick Phelan, one of the longest -serving ushers in the House. “We won a million in the Lotto.”

It was time to take a deep breath. That was one way of pricking a bubble of outrage. Even the hardest heart would have been softened.

Leinster House was a-buzz with the news that 50-odd ushers had divided a million euro among themselves. They walked away with €20,000 each.

Public servant Mick Phelan was over the moon. He told me he was retiring next month, and the Lotto Millionaire Raffle win was a godsend.

Mick is one of the most familiar figures around Leinster House. He has done 27 years there. I asked if I could talk to him about his Lotto win, about public service and retirement.

He was more than willing.

Over coffee, Mick told me the story of his life as a public servant. It was noble. It tore my prejudices apart.

Mick served in the Congo as a teenager back in the Sixties. He came from an Army family and naturally enough headed for the forces. He says that he always regarded himself as “an ambassador for my country” when abroad with the Army.

Luckily, he was out there before the Niemba Massacre, where nine Irish soldiers died in an ambush, but a colleague who flew to Portugal with him recently tells of Mick’s reaction when they hit turbulence. The colleague expressed fear of flying, but Mick retorted that it was “not as bad as flying into the Congo, sitting on a box of ammunition and being fired at by the Balubas”.

Mick recalls the poverty in the Congo and the malnutrition of the children there. He used to give food to them and then “realised how well-off we were in Ireland”, suggesting gently that “we should remember that today”.

After a spell of peacekeeping in Cyprus, Mick returned to Ireland and the military police. As a military policeman, he used to lock up Leinster House (maybe even on Easter Tuesday “privilege” days) and then applied for a job there as an usher.

He is now a team leader among a group of men and women who work hard, educate the public on the workings of parliament and give of their own time to learn the history of Leinster House to pass on to younger people. Public servants could grow on you.

What was the highlight of his time in Leinster House?

“The whole thing has been a highlight,” he says. The visit of Presidents Clinton and Nelson Mandela rate top in his memories, but interestingly, he is proudest of seeing “members from the North visiting after all that has happened up there. We are all together now”.

Another colleague tells how Mick gives so much of his spare time for the community. Mick himself modestly says that he “helps out with GAA club Parnells” and with the juvenile section in his home team of Kilmore. He ran his first marathon at the age of 54 to raise funds for the kids.

He will not say much about the ultimate destination of the €20,000. In a rare departure from the unvarnished patriotism that he undoubtedly feels, he has hinted to his wife that they might enjoy a shopping spree in Newry. Or even Liverpool. Brian Lenihan would be horrified.

It is easy to savage the public service during these tough times. Of course there is a culture problem. Of course privilege days should be abolished. Of course benchmarking should have been followed by tough performance criteria. Of course the public service unions have far too much power. Of course they should pay for their pensions like everyone else. Of course some areas are overstaffed. Of course it needs root-and- branch reform. Of course there are passengers galore.

Public servants may not be entrepreneurs, but at least they are not auctioneers, not fund managers, nor bankers, members of Ibec, nor trade unionist bullies.

And then there are all those wonderful nurses and teachers whose selflessness should not be forgotten.

There is plenty of fat out there to be cut to the bone.

And then there is Mick Phelan and his fellow ushers.