Return union representatives to state boards in NI and banish ‘quangocrats’, says Ictu

Unions in 1988 had more than 50 representatives on public bodies, but by 2008 this had fallen to 22 and just eight now

Northern Ireland’s trades’ unions are to demand places on all significant Stormont-backed boards, following the loss of 80 per cent of the representation they had on such bodies 30 years ago.

The move away from employers and unions nominating board members — justified by the need to comply with open competition rules — has led to a class of “quangocrats”, with serving Northern civil servants appointing retired colleagues to bodies, claims the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) in a policy document published today.

Ictu, which has 200,000 members across the North, argues the decline in State board directorships held by union nominees should be reversed and contends that the new Executive at Stormont should return to the social partnership model that previously worked well.

Ictu has demanded that the Executive agree to social partnership along the lines common in the Republic in recent decades.


Ictu said that trade unions have been increasingly pushed to the margins of public policy formulation and decision-making in the North over the last 30 years.

The document comes two weeks after Stormont’s newly appointed Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy said stronger trade unions have a significant role to play in the effort to create more jobs, along with protecting low-paid workers.

The Minister has also appointed Dr Lisa Wilson, of the Nevin Economic Research Institute, a union-backed think tank, to advise him on creating more “good jobs”, something which he identified as one of his key objectives.

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In its policy document, Democracy at Work — Social Dialogue and the Tripartite Model, Ictu argues that the need for genuine representation has been dispensed with on countless Northern public bodies under the guise of professionalisation.

The move away from appointing nominees of employers, unions, etc justified by a supposed need for open competition has led to the creation of a class of “quangocrats”, with serving civil servants appointing retired colleagues to bodies.

In 1988, unions had 51 representatives on public bodies. By 2008 this had fallen to 22 and just eight now. The change has diminished representation and has restricted diversity, Ictu argued.

Current selection rules have been criticised publicly by neutral parties, including former commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland Felicity Huston who has said that she receiveed full co-operation from the civil service in her duties.

Last year, she said: “The [selection] criteria are written by civil servants, who, you know, write criteria that would suit them, so their former colleagues then fulfil the criteria and get appointed. It’s a massive problem.”

Ictu general secretary Owen Reidy said on Monday the situation in the North is “massively behind what exists in the Republic, things have actually slipped here somewhat over the past decade but you can’t compare the two.”

The report cites the examples of the Health and Safety Executive and Industrial and Employment Tribunals, the latter being the equivalent of the Workplace Relations Commission. In both instances, it suggests, there has been a move away from the appointment of nominees despite provisions to the effect that employers and employees are to be represented.

“We have a situation where it is being said that, say, a HR manager can be a worker representative,” says Gerry Murphy, Ictu’s Belfast-based deputy general secretary.

“The reality is that change is in the air right now in Northern Ireland and the part the unions can play in that is being recognised. As Stormont gets into the business of tackling the economy and reform of the public service, we believe everyone, including the private sector, will benefit from having unions inside the tent. The last thing we need is another decade of economic stagnation and industrial strife.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times