As public sector workers take to the picket lines today, Olcán Shaw explains how Stormont has failed them and why they are right to take matters into their own hands.
“Even if it were fully functioning, our Executive does not have the resources to tackle this problem.”
On 25 April last year, on the eve of a strike involving nine public sector trade unions, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson released a statement. On the surface, it appeared no different to the numerous generic ‘copy and paste’ tracts all too often issued by Stormont’s Government parties when addressing industrial action. But with one line the DUP unwittingly highlighted the limitations the North’s public sector unions have placed on themselves since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
The cycles of crisis, collapse, suspension and talks are the defining characteristics of the post GFA Northern Government. What has been heralded internationally as the neoliberal blueprint for conflict resolution has proved to be nothing of the sort. The violence may, largely, be a thing of the past, but no real resolution has ever been forthcoming. Instead, it institutionalised sectarianism into governance and set in motion a neoliberal takeover. However, caught up in the collective euphoria of ‘peace’, the populace of the North threw their faith into the devolved assembly at Stormont. Nationalist and Unionist politicians sat together. Ministers, running their own departments made grandiose announcements about various pet projects. The Finance Minister publicised an annual budget with all the choreography and gravitas of any government minister across the world. The fact that the budget was set in advance by Westminster, that the minister was simply dividing up whatever Westminster deemed appropriate, that Stormont had no fiscal independence, was never mentioned.
By 2010 Sinn Féin and the DUP dominated the assembly. Brought together by the St Andrew’s Agreement that reinforced and strengthened the sectarian structures of the GFA, both parties had come a long way from their respective origins. With IRA weapons decommissioned, Sinn Féin fully embraced reformist electoral politics, leaving behind their revolutionary past, with an eye at that point on a role as a junior coalition partner in a future Southern government. The DUP, having replaced Ian Paisley with Peter Robinson, were attempting to move away from their image as a party of protest to one of business. So, when the newly elected Tory-Lib Dem coalition began rolling out its austerity programme, both parties were more than happy to implement it.
The Long War on the Public Sector
On 14 December 2010, under instructions from Westminster, the Stormont Executive announced a budget plan for cuts amounting to £4 billion over the course of 4 years. One of the key components of this was a freeze on Civil Service pay. Sammy Wilson, the DUP finance minister, described the plan as “a good Christmas present for the people of Northern Ireland.” Public sector pay has never recovered from that ‘present’. All of the ongoing pay disputes can be directly traced back to that moment. In the 13 years since – the pay freeze has (theoretically) been lifted, the Finance Minister has switched from DUP to Sinn Féin, the assembly has collapsed, returned and collapsed again. However, public sector pay has declined in real terms and the public sector itself now stands on the brink of collapse.
The NHS, long regarded by unionists as their trump card to play on the national question has, with the exception of emergency care, effectively ceased to function in the North. Waiting lists are not measured in weeks, or months, but in years. The frustration of having to phone the GP at 8.30 in the morning, in the hope that you might ‘get lucky’ and secure one of few available appointments that day, is now a normal everyday occurrence and NHS dentists may as well be extinct. All this has culminated in privatisation by stealth. The NHS itself is haemorrhaging staff: either to the private health care companies, emigration or the higher wages over the border.
Likewise, the Civil Service has had the same fate. The 2010 pay freeze, coupled with the ill thought out 2015 voluntary exit scheme has left the Civil Service seemingly in terminal decline. Staff morale has collapsed. Pay is now so low that staff processing social security benefits are now often themselves in receipt of those same benefits. Many rely on food banks to see them through the month. The story is the same in every part of the public sector.
Stormont’s Latest Collapse
The 2010 austerity decisions are the starting point for public sector decline, but what really pushed it over the edge was the latest collapse of the assembly. In 2022, DUP ministers resigned from their positions, leading to a collapse of the Executive. Officially, they stated that this was due to concerns over the creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea, following the conclusion of the seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. But to the outside observer it certainly looks like internal party politics played just as much a role in this decision as the availability of English sausages in Northern shops. An entire series of articles could be written on this topic and its implications for wider society. But for now, it’s enough to acknowledge that responsibility for this assembly collapse lies solely with the DUP.
Following their ministerial resignations, the DUP have publicly adopted a hardline position, effectively stating they will not return until the UK government tears up its trade deal with the EU. Interestingly, these demands appear at odds with the majority of business and commerce across the North. Certainly, it seems far removed from the image the party attempted to cultivate just over decade ago. That the DUP are prepared to put the Union, Ulster nationalism and party unity ahead of capital, appears to be something the British government was totally unprepared for. Consequently, in an attempt to force the DUP to return, they have opted for the collective punishment of everyone in the North. Literally every aspect of society has been subjected to catastrophic spending cuts, at the direction of the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris. Even policing, long deemed untouchable, has seen its budgets constrained and cut. Westminster’s train of thought has obviously been to make the people suffer in the understanding this would force a climbdown from the DUP. It hasn’t worked. The assembly remains collapsed, the DUP position remains unchanged and civil society appears to be crumbling.
Stormont Can’t Work for Workers: We Need to Fight
Considering all this, it is necessary to look at the roles played by the various public sector unions. From the beginning, union leadership has offered almost uncritical support for the Good Friday Agreement and the concept of devolved government at Stormont. It should be noted that the unions are not alone in this thought process. Every aspect of ‘sensible’ society – business, the media, the unions, the education bodies, etc – all place Stormont on an insurmountable pedestal. This means that in times of crisis, such as this, Stormont suddenly becomes their solution to every problem. The last year has certainly proven that.
Take NIPSA, the Civil Service union, for example. Last year an industrial action ballot returned a 85% mandate for strike action. After making a big public announcement about this result, NIPSA sat on their hands for 57 days before finally proceeding and calling a one-day strike in April. This was followed by months of inaction, before a second one-day strike was called in September. At branch meetings, across the organisation, members were repeatedly told by officials that without Stormont up and running there was little to no point ramping up the campaign. That once the DUP returned to government and only then could the ongoing pay dispute be looked at. NIPSA effectively attempted to carry out a holding exercise to placate members who were demanding more action. The impression among many members is that the return of Stormont was prioritised over the pay dispute.
However, the collapse of the latest round of talks between the Stormont parties and the British Government just before Christmas has caused a shift in the unions’ strategy. Heaton-Harris announced that an additional £3.3 billion, including money to settle public sector pay disputes, was on offer should the Executive be formed. Again, the DUP said no. However, by confirming the existence of the additional funding, Heaton-Harris also confirmed he had the ability to settle the claims himself. This point had already been argued by grassroots union members right across the entire public sector. So finally, after what many feel was a wasted year, the trade union movement is directing its anger towards the one place that always had the power to resolve this – Westminster. Thursday 18 January will see the largest ever trade union strike in the history of the Northern state. 170,000 workers are expected to withdraw their labour, creating a situation whereby much of the region is expected to shut down. The demand will be that, Stormont or not, it is time to pay workers what they deserve.
Last April when Jeffrey Donaldson said, “Even if it were fully functioning, our Executive does not have the resources to tackle this problem”, he was right. Whether it returns or not, Stormont cannot address the needs of workers – because of who holds the purse strings, but also because of the combination of sectarianism and neoliberalism embedded into its very DNA.
2024 offers the potential to build a serious fightback and put real power back into the hands of the trade union movement. No more settling for crumbs off Stormont’s table. As James Connolly put it:
“Our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.”