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Alumni Spotlight: Oonagh Buckley, Director General at Workplace Relations Commission
Oonagh Buckley's career demonstrates how Law graduates can revel in numerous roles across the Civil Service.
From staying in the boomed-out Holiday Inn in Sarajevo to introducing measures to protect the Kerry Slug, Oonagh Buckley has contributed to public life across the Public Service.
Now Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission, Oonagh Buckley is positioning the WRC to meet the needs of the future.
1. How does a law graduate go onto become Director General at the Workplace Relations Commission?
I have become evangelical about the Civil Service, but I also believe that we are very poor at selling it to graduates.
The beauty of the Civil Service is that you have the opportunity to take on interesting and varied positions across a range of diverse departments.
At the same time, law underpins everything we in the Civil Service, so having a legal background really gives you an advantage.
After graduating from UCC, I completed an MA in European Studies in the College of Europe (Bruges and Warsaw) focussing on Central and Eastern European Studies, before obtaining a Masters in Law from University College London, concentrating on European and comparative law.
Like many other graduates at that time, I also sat the civil service exams, I was offered a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs in advance of Ireland’s Presidency of the EU in 1993. I worked on handling the peace process in what was then called the former Yugoslavia and got the opportunity to do some amazing things, such as travel with the then Tánaiste and the EU Commissioner to Bosnia and Herzegovina and stay in the bombed-out Holiday Inn in Sarajevo.
I initially thought that I would only take the job for 6 months, before going down to then Bar, but was offered a position with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 1997 in the process that saw Ireland’s planning law updated in 2000. It was a major piece of legislation which changed the country’s planning code radically and continues to underpin Irish planning law. After 10 years, and many pieces of legislation later, I became a Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service for 18 months, where I worked on projects like the conservation of the Kerry Slug.
In 2008, I joined the Department of Finance just as the fiscal crisis took hold. It really was a difficult role, where the decisions we took impacted very severely upon people's lives.
I drafted emergency legislation that enabled the government to make pay and pension cuts for public servants, the effects of which became very evident.
Part of my brief was to negotiate pay agreements in the public service, so applying for the position as Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission was a logical step for me in 2016.
As my career shows, working in the Civil Service offers graduates the opportunity to make a significant contribution to society. I have been involved in writing 14 pieces and primary legislation for example, that has changed many laws. The work you do as a civil servant yourself has a real impact upon people’s lives.
2. What has been the proudest moment of your career?
Part Five of the Planning and Development Act is something I’m particularly proud of. It represented a huge shift in mind set around how the planning system has a role in providing social and affordable housing and we put a lot of time and effort into preparing the legislation.
The legislation was always going to be contentious, and the President exercised her powers under Article 26 of the Constitution to re refer it to the Supreme Court for review of its constitutionality, given its potential impact on the property rights of developers and landowners.
At the time, I wasn’t too confident that Part Five of the Act would become law, so to have it succeed was something else.
In fact, I was on holiday, with some friends from Law School days, when a friend rang to tell me that the Supreme Court had found Part Five to be constitutional. I couldn’t believe it, and as you did back then, I rushed to an internet café to make sure that it had.
In more recent times, being in a position to negotiate a pay increase on behalf of Public and Civil Servants during 2015 was hugely satisfying.
The seven preceding years of austerity had a real impact on people’s lives, so it marked a turning point.
To mark the occasion, instead of just issuing an email, my staff prepared a formal paper version of the circular and got me to sign it formally, before framing it.
3. You have contributed to public life in a number of different roles – How has your law degree prepared you for such a varied career?
Despite graduating with a Law Degree from UCC, strictly speaking, I have never worked as a lawyer.
However, as law underpins many of the things that determines how the world works, I have benefitted from my legal background throughout my career.
When you are involved in writing legislation, you need to understand legal construction, legal principles and the Constitution, knowledge of which was imparted to me at UCC.
Law also forces you to think and write methodically and encourages you to use precise language, soft transferable skills that I have applied throughout my career.
4. Having launched the new HR Research Centre at CUBS recently, what role do law graduates have in improving workplace relations into the future?
Employment Law is incredibly complex and underpins a huge amount of the HR process.
Law graduates have the ability to take a step back, be analytical, and remove emotion from the process before advising people to do the right thing.
Lawyers of the future should be trying to simplify how things work in order to present law in as simply a way as possible.
Lawyers should also be willing to become HR people. Law graduates bring a different way of thinking to the role, something which can prove mutually beneficial.
5. How has your role at the Workplace Relations Commission evolved since becoming Director General nearly two years ago?
Initially, much of my role concerned dealing with the amalgamation of five pre-existing employment rights organisations under the umbrella of the WRC.
When I started, my job was essentially firefighting, in terms of handling the problems that had occurred as the amalgamation was done. So for example, during my first few months as Director General, I arranged to meet with each of our stakeholders, including employment barristers and solicitors, who were very concerned about the bureaucratic problems that they had faced, and some of the gaps that had arisen in the key services provided by the WRC. We devised a programme to address the most significant issues that our stakeholders raised with us.
We have now managed to address the most significant problems and my role has evolved, its less about engaging in firefighting and more about strategy for the future.
Our purpose is to solve disputes in the workplace and help employers and employees navigate the best way for them of doing just that. My job is to position the WRC so that it is a resource for all employers and employees who need our help.
6. How do you anticipate the WRC evolving to meet the demands of the gig economy?
I’m slightly sceptical about the impact of the gig economy, due to the fact that at present, the vast majority of employees remain on traditional contracts of indefinite duration. However, we will need to update employment law to reflect changes to work practices.
Presently, the law is too complex; it needs to be rationalised to address the needs of people in unusual working conditions.
There have been changes at a European level to help the self employed and its something we are beginning to look at here too.
At the moment, we are more focussed on people working in lower paid jobs and inspecting the places in which they work.
We are also concerned with people working on unpaid internships, particularly students or recent graduates.
As far as I’m concerned, if you come to work you must be paid.
7. How much of a challenge did the economic collapse pose to the WRC over the last decade or so?
As you might expect, our work flow is affected by the economic cycle.
During the downturn people who had lost their jobs might have come to the WRC to deal with issues on dismissal or redundancy; now employees are coming to negotiate pay increases with employers who want more productivity.
Of course, the recession hit the resources of the WRC’s predecessor organisations, with funding and numbers of staff falling sharply. It is only now that we are in a position to fill vacancies.
Thankfully we are now in a much happier place than a few years, which is important because we are entering a period of renewed negotiation. However, we still have to argue very strongly for any additional resources.