Unions believe they are having moment in North but say funding is key to stable future

Ictu to launch document in which it argues for a greater role in government-backed bodies in Northern Ireland

It’s no great surprise to hear senior Irish Congress of Trade Unions official Gerry Murphy say the organisation was pleased with the speech delivered last month by newly appointed minister for the economy Conor Murphy on his key policy objectives for Northern Ireland.

After a prolonged period out in the political cold, the minister talked the about the desirability of strengthening the unions and the part they have to play in the improvement of the North’s employment landscape.

Ictu’s Belfast-based deputy general secretary believes the new minister’s public pronouncement is in part the product of a wider private shift in perception with the union movement benefiting, he suggests, from its contribution to the current economic debate and role in the recent public-sector pay disputes which, he contends, played a key part in focusing the minds of politicians on the restoration of powersharing.

On the face of it, the high-profile name-checking might more obviously be attributed to the appointment of a Sinn Féin minister to a key economic brief but the senior Ictu official argues the union movement is having something of a moment in the North right now having increased membership off the back of the strikes in key sectors such as health, education and transport and strengthened its relations with the various political parties.


He was speaking ahead of Ictu’s launch on Tuesday of a document in which it argues for a greater role in government-backed bodies. Its representation, Ictu says, has fallen by 84 per cent since the late 1980s as a combination of Conservative governments and civil servants steadily undermined a system of engagement with both employers and worker representatives that had its roots in the mid-1960s and had served the population well at a time of severe crisis.

“Conor Murphy has certainly indicated he wants to see increased levels of worker representation on these boards again,” he says. “And while traditionally other political parties might have looked at things differently, things have been changing.

“For example, the DUP has increased their level of engagement considerably. We have had several face-to-face meetings with Jeffrey Donaldson, who has explicitly said to us he wishes to work more closely with the trade union movement. They’ve appointed one of their MLAs to liaise directly with the trade unions. It’s all very positive.”

Certainly, Ictu’s general secretary, Owen Reidy, regards the current situation as progress on his time in Belfast trying but largely failing to get meetings with Conor Murphy’s DUP predecessor in the economy role, Diane Dodds.

Murphy sees greater representation on the various state-backed boards and committees in which the unions previously played a far more significant part as an important platform for Ictu and its constituent member organisations to have a say both in day-to-day nuts-and-bolts decision-making as well as a presence in the broader area of policy formulation.

With some 200,000 members, the modern-day movement is substantially different to the Troubles-era one with the landscape having evolved very considerably off the back of fair employment legislation, a shrinking of the industrial sector and growth of services, participation levels in higher education and shifting population demographics.

The political environment is also much changed since the Belfast Agreement and the recent public-sector disputes highlighted the extent to which tens of thousands of Northern Irish workers had fallen far behind their counterparts in both the rest of Ireland and Britain.

“The fact Stormont was down, the fact that they weren’t able to do any serious financial planning, the levels of public debt, Covid and the cost-of-living crisis... all of that contributed to a situation where incomes across the public sector as a whole fell in comparison to those in the other devolved regions and in England itself,” says Murphy.

“If you only look down the road from Belfast towards Dublin and compare salaries, with teachers for example, the gap is shocking but if you look east to Scotland and Wales you will see the same thing manifesting itself, the same sorts of gaps.

“The other thing is that people were basically completely frustrated with the political situation and while those strikes were certainly not political strikes, that frustration was an undercurrent among the workers involved and the general population.”

How the proposed pay settlements – the civil service has been offered 5 per cent plus a lump-sum payment of about £1,500 (€1,753), with a number of other sectors talking about potential settlements broadly along the same lines – will be paid for into the future is now an issue, however, and Murphy says it is part of the wider debate that needs to take place on the funding of the economy in general.

In another policy document, Smart Money, published in September, Ictu argued that with day-to-day public spending in the North having increased by only 4 per cent between 2010 and 2020 and capital spending having been cut by almost half before largely but not entirely recovering over the same period, the need for greater backing from London is clear.

Murphy seems confident it can be secured, arguably overly so given the various tax and spending commitments being made by the two main British political parties but, he says, “We can’t let that [background] deflect us from highlighting the need for sustainable levels of funding going forward because, as things stand, Northern Ireland is not funded at a sustainable level.

“If they [the British government] are serious about stabilisation, serious about transformation, serious about a stable political future then they’re going to have to put more money in.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times