Northern Ireland’s government was suspended between 2017 and 2020 after the sectarian parties refused to reach a power-sharing agreement following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Now a strike wave has forced them and the bosses to give ground.
The Socialist spoke to public sector union Nipsa’s deputy general secretary Carmel Gates (in a personal capacity) about the struggles.
Were the private sector strikes in 2019 a watershed for workers’ struggle?
Yes. There’s been a significant change in Northern Ireland. We’ve gone from a period of having the least number of days lost in strikes to potentially now moving into a peak that we haven’t seen in decades.
And I think it was the Harland and Wolff shipyard occupation victory that kick-started that. The shipyard was facing closure. It’s a historic landmark. Not just on the landscape, with the two very prominent cranes, Samson and Goliath – it has also been one of the most important employers.
The proud industrial heritage within Belfast and Northern Ireland – much of this has gone. Symbolically the action taken by shipyard workers has had an impact. People saw those workers standing up and saving industry, saving something that is monumental.
And it has to some degree changed the landscape – the confidence that workers now feel. Quickly after Harland and Wolff, Wrightbus – a factory that makes buses – was facing closure. And again, the workers took to the outside of the factory and made their presence felt.
Young people, who’ve not seen trade unions in action before, are now seeing what trade unions really are for. When you see workers standing outside a factory, you see them saying ‘we’re telling you what we want. We have the power.’ And older workers, who had lost their confidence, are saying: ‘That’s what trade unionism is about!’
And then the civil service strike started last summer, while Northern Ireland’s government in Stormont was still suspended?
Yes. The strike was about pay restoration after ten years of real-terms pay cuts. But more to the point, setting out our stall for next year, as in, you’re not doing this again.
There was no end in sight for restoring devolution at that time. But even if we’re not fighting with Stormont politicians, we’re fighting with senior civil servants – and essentially, with Westminster, who were setting the below-inflation pay remit in the absence of local politicians.
We had a very, very successful strike day in July. And since then we have taken a number of strike days, and some very successful selective strike action.
Because of the reduction in numbers of the civil service, and the fact there’s been a moratorium on recruitment for a while, there’s a high number of agency workers in the Northern Ireland civil service. Normally you worry that agency workers can be used to undermine a dispute.
We found that agency workers – who are mainly young, desperate for a job and feeling exploited themselves – joined us in the strike. Even though we didn’t ballot them, they walked out en masse in support of the dispute, which was excellent. We feel that was part of a new-found confidence.
Our hopes for a Corbyn government were dashed. Nonetheless, people have said: ‘We’re still up for the fight.’ So that took us into December – and the health service dispute.
What is significant about the NHS strike?
For the first time in the 103-year history of the Royal College of Nursing – which is not affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions or Britain’s Trade Union Congress – it took strike action.
As a result of a situation of low pay and staffing levels, and left with no choice, the RCN balloted and got a huge return in favour of strike action. And on 18 December, along with Unison, Nipsa and Unite, the RCN took strike action.
Since then there’s been different action. The nurses have been on strike on more than one day. This is the most significant action in the health service since 1982, when there was the pay dispute.
And the anger on the picket lines – the picket lines have been huge, they’ve been noisy. And they’ve been overwhelmingly supported.
In fact, the impact of that action has changed the dynamic of politics in Northern Ireland. Coming as it did in a list of other actions where workers have gained confidence, it has led to a forcing of the Stormont parties back into power.
Also upfront has been the issue of teachers’ pay. Teachers in Northern Ireland have been in a three-year dispute. It’s action short of strike, which means they don’t do duties after school, which has a significant impact on the workings within education.
In practically all of the public sector, as well as the private sector, there is a mood among workers now that ‘enough is enough’.
What are the next steps for the workers’ movement?
I’m not suggesting the sectarian issues have gone, because they haven’t. But as historically in Northern Ireland, if the workers’ movement is at the fore, then sectarianism can be pushed back, because Catholics and Protestants are struggling together.
The expectation of workers has now risen. The sectarian politicians are not going to deliver on all the issues we want. There is now, for the trade union movement, the real task of building a political alternative.
In Northern Ireland now, there’s the embryo of a workers’ political alternative – we’ve seen a bit of a better vision, so let’s build on that, and make it political, and make it permanent.
The smallest sectarian incident can change this. That’s why we need to cement this now, to say workers can pose a political alternative. Don’t give power back to the politicians. Build a party that represents workers’ interests.
(2nd of March 2020)