Left candidate, Carmel Gates, has won the election for the General Secretary position in Northern Ireland’s largest union NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) gaining 44% of the vote. Her nearest contender won 34%, and the two other candidates scored 12% and 10% respectively. Carmel is a supporter of the Militant Left (CWI in Ireland).
This victory raises the stakes in the coming fight back against the impact of years of austerity and is a hugely important development given the background of increasing sectarian tensions in the North. To fully realise the potential, it is vital that all serious activists draw the correct conclusions, and work with a degree of urgency to rebuild the activist layer in the union, and the organised left.
The turnout at 12% was lower than expected but this explained by the “Covid effect”. The campaign was also severely limited by the lockdown with none of the usual activities which an election such as this would bring. There were none of the hugely important face-to-face meetings, no rallies, and no leafleting of workplaces. The message still went out, however, as an enthusiastic team circulated tens of thousands of “virtual” leaflets, covering both industrial and political issues, and a series of online meetings reached a wide audience.
The importance of this victory must not be understated. NIPSA has 40,000 members, which means that it is a large union given the population of Northern Ireland. The GMB union, with 620,000 members, is a comparably sized union in the context of England, Scotland and Wales. Similarly, NIPSA already wields considerable power and influence, and has a great deal of untapped potential.
Linking industrial and political issues
Carmel’s campaign sought to link industrial issues with the political and raised the dangers facing the union, the wider movement, and the entire working class. The unique role the trade unions play in Northern Ireland is difficult to understand for those who have not experienced it in action. The unions unite working people whatever their background when it is an unfortunate fact that they are largely divided by sectarian geography and have no united political voice. NIPSA organises civil servants of all grades, and public sector workers, mostly but not exclusively in administrative grades, across health, education, and other areas. It has a presence in thousands of workplaces and in every city, town and village. Its size and influence mean it is able to give a lead to other unions and the wider movement, as has been demonstrated on many occasions both in strikes and demonstrations against sectarianism and in the one-day strikes against cuts in 2011 and 2015.
The fact that it was able to give a lead in the past was not just a question of size of course, but of resolute and far-sighted leadership, at the branch and General Council (the union’s elected leadership body) level. Anti-sectarian and socialist ideas, tactics and strategy have been put forward by Carmel Gates and other activists over the years and have begun the transformation of the union into a fighting body. NIPSA now stands for “independent, cross-community, anti-sectarian trade unionism” and for a socialist economy because of the efforts of the left.
Workers have lost out over ten years of austerity, imposed both by the Westminster government and the Stormont Executive. Civil servants and public sector workers know they are “key workers” and will now demand to be treated as such. The election of Carmel Gates will embolden activists and will help in the process of rebuilding the activist layers and the left in the union. It will assist in the fightback against further cuts, which are clearly planned as the pandemic recedes, and in the struggle to make up lost ground from the last decade and to make new gains. Victories will come through a well organised, membership-led, and combative union. There is a major challenge ahead in realising the necessity to draw in new young fighters who continue the struggle to transform NIPSA. This election victory is not the end, it is only the beginning.