28 February 2023
Workers and public services need progressive power-sharing in the north - Declan Kearney
"In a re-established Executive, Sinn Féin would prioritise workers’ rights legislation. Our proposals will make it easier for workers to join trade unions, participate in collective bargaining, improve job security, and end precarious working conditions. We will end the exploitative fire and rehire agenda."
A huge strike rally was staged outside Belfast City Hall last week by the trade unions representing teachers and health workers in the north.
It was a significant display of co-ordinated union industrial action and solidarity. Other rallies and picket lines were organised elsewhere.
Industrial and strike action by public servants has been intensifying following consultations within their trade unions throughout 2022.
Nurses, ambulance staff and other health workers went onto picket lines in freezing temperatures during the winter months. Separate strike action was taken in the same period by postal workers. Two hundred maintenance staff in the Housing Executive attached to UNITE the Union have been on strike since last September. Planned industrial action by fire fighters from the Fire Brigades Union has been paused for now.
Nearly 12 months ago, senior trade union officials were predicting this would happen unless proper pay settlements were offered and urgent action was taken to address workforce pressures, terms and conditions, and the resourcing of regional public services.
Essential workers such as health workers and teaching staff are at breaking point. The psychological and emotional stress levels in their work environments are unprecedented.
Pay within the public sector in the north, and also the south, of Ireland has been reducing at an alarming rate. These are the workers who care for the sick, vulnerable, our children’s welfare and education, and who are responsible for delivering the public services which we rely upon, including health, education, public safety, maintaining housing stock, infrastructure and environment.
With escalating inflation levels, which have pushed up interest rates; the cost-of-living crisis and soaring energy, fuel and food costs; many essential workers are turning to food banks and charity to make ends meet.
At the same time, public services are being decimated. The health system is in endemic crisis, due to staff shortages, unsafe working conditions, bed shortages, hospital waiting lists and a lack of investment in preventative care.
All this is the culmination of 12 years of Tory cuts which have systematically cut the public expenditure budget for the north – resulting in serious underinvestment across the entire public sector, from health and education to policing.
The Tory party has turned the north into an economic and political backwater. The imposition of Brexit and the catastrophic consequences of that agenda, allied to the impasse over the implementation of the Protocol, have caused immeasurable damage to the political process in the north.
This political chaos gave a pretext to the DUP and political unionism to crash the power sharing institutions since February 2022. Before that, in October 2021, the DUP blocked the North-South Ministerial Council from functioning.
As a result, there has been no barrier against the worst effects of Tory policy impacting upon the region.
The DUP’s actions prevented a three-year budget going out for consultation in February 2022. In the absence of an Executive, the Tories in Whitehall will set the public expenditure settlement for the north and the regional rate for 2023.
The lack of a functioning Executive and an agreed regional budget has meant that no Executive pay policy exists.
Public services, workers and their families and society across the north are exposed to even more ruthless Tory cuts and privatisation by stealth.
These are political decisions by the Tories.
Brexit proved how little they care for anyone from the north of Ireland. Those who dominate the Tory government have no investment in, and less commitment to, the peace and political processes in Ireland.
Tory right wing ideology will always trump the needs and interests of citizens in this part of Ireland, while ordinary workers are being ripped off.
If different political choices were being made by the British government, this perfect storm would be avoided. Action to address tax evasion by big business and multi-national corporations, and introduce effective windfall taxes on the profits of the energy companies would generate the revenue to transform the sustainability of public services and deliver proper pay settlements for all public servants.
Instead, the focus of the Tories is on bringing forward anti-trade union legislation, which will remove EU and human rights protections on the right to strike and take industrial action.
Faced with trade union demands for fair pay and decent working conditions, which attract widespread community support, both in the north of Ireland and Britain, Tory ministers have decided to restrict workers’ rights to strike, and take additional powers to actually sack striking workers.
Tory rule is bad for workers and their families; it’s bad for public services; and it’s bad for the health and welfare of wider society. It is absolutely incompatible with political progress, and how we continue to manage the opportunities and change ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement.
Citizens here should be allowed to shape our economic and social future, and relationship with the EU, through the exercise of self-determination and constitutional change.
In the meantime, the power sharing Executive must be restored without further delay.
Citizens in the north need a regional government, which will stand up for them and for public services.
In a re-established Executive, Sinn Féin would prioritise workers’ rights legislation. Our proposals will make it easier for workers to join trade unions, participate in collective bargaining, improve job security, and end precarious working conditions. We will end the exploitative fire and rehire agenda.
Sinn Féin will press for the transfer of wage setting power from Whitehall so that the regional minimum wage is increased.
We have long argued for a social dialogue process which consults trade unions and employers on industrial and economic policy.
The refusal by any British government to transfer economic and fiscal levers to the regional Executive is both anti-democratic and untenable.
The restoration of a power sharing Executive and Assembly must be accompanied by a strategic financial investment plan which puts public finances in the north on a stable and sustainable footing.
Sinn Féin’s proposals are the alternative to the insanity of Tory policy since 2010.
That requires a restored Executive with parties working together for all our people.
Sinn Féin stands ready to lead that Executive and deliver on progressive power sharing which stands up for workers, families and public services.