Northern Ireland

Trade union boss says pay claim resolution lies with Chris Heaton-Harris

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy

Trade unions will continue to hold the secretary of state responsible for settling public sector pay disputes after talks aimed at restoring the Stormont institutions concluded without a breakthrough, the assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has said.

Gerry Murphy, who assumed the role of union figurehead in the north in March, said rebooting the institutions would be welcome but would not necessarily avert widespread industrial action in the new year.

He was speaking to The Irish News in the aftermath the DUP’s refusal to accept a deal around post-Brexit trade arrangements tabled by the British government.

A number of unions have already announced plans for industrial action on January 18, with many more expected to join what is expected to be the biggest general strike for a least a decade.

Mr Murphy said he was disappointed political agreement hadn’t been reached but there were nonetheless a “number of positives which we can bank”.

“It’s good to get recognition on the part of the secretary of state that public sector workers do indeed deserve a pay raise,” he said.

“We always knew that he has the money to get the the process of resolution underway.

“Whether or not it’s entirely enough remains to be seen, but it’s certainly enough to open meaningful negotiations across all of those departments who are currently in dispute with their workforces.”

The ICTU assistant general secretary said that unlike the Republic there isn’t one single public sector pay deal to be resolved.

“Each of these unions has particular claims and disputes, they’re not all exactly the same,” he said.

“Some of them go further than simply issues around pay, some relate pay and grading reviews, some relate up to workload and other issues.”

He called on Chris Heaton-Harris to release the money he has earmarked for pay claims, saying such a move would “transform the atmosphere and allow for negotiations to take place”.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye (Jonathan Porter / Press Eye)

“Our focus remains on Heaton-Harris in the absence of an executive,” he said.

“Decision making for our local politicians has effectively stalled since the DUP took themselves out of government and the institutions subsequently collapsed.”

He said the secretary of state “holds the purse strings” and has the authority to release the necessary funds.

“He’s already made it quite clear, he has the money, so why doesn’t he get on with doing it and let the public servants and their employers get on with stabilising those services in the first instance, and begin the process of rebuilding and refreshing those services to people who quite clearly need them back up and running uninterrupted,” he said.

The Co Armagh-born former primary school principal, who was previously northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the country’s largest teaching union, said the January 18 strike would coincide with when the secretary of state is scheduled to make a decision on whether to call a fresh assembly election.

“The affiliate trade unions of congress in the north are of the view that they need to remind the secretary of state and increase the pressure on him and the British government to release the money in the first instance, but more broadly to remind them that nothing in respect to stabilisation and transformation is possible without the active cooperation of the trade unions,” he said.

“That cooperation brings with it a lot of positive benefits, as these are the people who understand the services better than anyone else.”

Mr Murphy said a deal on Tuesday would have resulted in a “very different conversation”. He pointed to a convention in industrial relations that sees strike action suspended while negotiations take place.

However, he said a restored executive would not necessarily see the strike called off.

“It may very well go ahead but it probably wouldn’t be on the same scale,” he said, adding that the unions required an “explicit demonstration that they (a restored executive) are moving to resolve the issue of pay imminently”.