What’s another year?

Members of the Royal College of Nursing have announced they will join other trade unions in industrial action
Industrial strike Thursday will see the biggest day of industrial action in a lifetime in Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

Recently when I was asked to assess the industrial relations year that has just gone, I found myself struggling to find a single word to describe it and instead began to look at it from differing perspectives whereupon words like “frustrating” and “worrying” seemed to top my list.

When trade disputes become inextricably entwined with political disputes then the normal rules of engagement are disapplied because power plays and purse string-holders become the focus of attention as everyone looks to see who’s “in the room” and who’s not, or even if the room, as is now often the case, is empty.

As mid-January 2024 looms large the disaggregation of pay and politics seems some way off and the traditional industrial relations bargaining dynamic remains in cold storage.

Questions now abound regarding the impact on future wage negotiations as trade unions have never acted in such unison (pardon the pun Unison) before.

Will this fraternal collegiality remain intact when politics here returns to something more akin to normal? This is an important question because this could result in higher union membership and density across sectors and it may kickstart a rethink about industrial relations machinery in this jurisdiction.

There is little doubt that developments such as minimum service level legislation in GB has set up the next trade union battleground for 2024 as it has become a totemic issue regarding the basic rights associated with the right to withdraw labour.

Mark McAllister

Although this legislation does not apply in Northern Ireland because employment law is a devolved (or as I called it ‘de-loved’) matter, it does beg questions about how the political situation could impact if a form of direct rule was to emerge as the only way forward and employment law parity pathway became the order of the day for the remainder of the political mandate.

But if a day is a long time in politics then a year must represent an eon and at the minute it is impossible to look beyond Thursday January 18 whereupon a key piece of the never-ending puzzle may drop into place with the biggest day of industrial action in a lifetime in Northern Ireland providing the contextual backdrop.

For those of a certain vintage, or indeed with a penchant for Eurovision (you know who you are), when Johnny Logan sang “What’s another year?” I didn’t realise he was expecting a definitive answer . . .

:: Mark McAllister is director of employment relations services at the Labour Relations Agency NI