Northern Ireland news

Senior leader says trade unions must engage in debate about future of Northern Ireland

Owen Reidy of the ICTU. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association
David Young, PA

The trade union movement in Northern Ireland must be prepared to engage in a debate about the constitutional future of the north, a senior leader has said.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary Owen Reidy said it was an issue that unions “can no longer ignore”.

Addressing the biennial delegate conference of the ICTU’s Northern Ireland Committee, Mr Reidy said events over the past decade, particularly Brexit, meant it was “probably more likely than not” that referendums on Irish unity may take place on both sides of the border within the next ten years.

“I think it’s an issue that can’t be avoided,” he told the event in Enniskillen.

“I think it’s an issue that if we’re serious about representing all of our members, I stress all of our members, we must engage in it.

“Irrespective of people’s views on the matter, I think everyone would agree that things that have taken place in the last decade, particularly around the issue of Brexit and other matters, has made the possibility or the prospect of a referendum over the next decade more likely.

“The outcome of that referendum is a matter for people, primarily in Northern Ireland, but also the Republic of Ireland, because it would be a ballot on both sides of the border. So, the people decide, but I do think it is probably more likely than not that that type of a referendum may take place in the next 10 years.”

Mr Reidy said the trade union movement had an important contribution to make, insisting no other organisation in the region could boast such diverse membership.

He stressed the importance of maintaining a “unity of purpose” amid the debate on Northern Ireland’s future.

“I think our unique voice needs to be heard in this debate,” he told the conference in the Killyhevlin Hotel.

“In this room it’s a microcosm of our society – there are people in this room who would define themselves as nationalist, unionist, loyalist, republican, a little bit of both of some of the above, and a number of people who would consider themselves none of the above.

“There’s no other organisation, there’s no other movement, there’s no other grouping that can bring that diversity of people together. So, I think we should engage in this debate in confidence, with strength and, crucially, with a unity of purpose.

“This debate is too important to be left to politicians. And it is too important to be left with people who have firm and fixed views, irrespective of what their view is, because there are many people who haven’t got a settled view.

“But, and it’s a huge but, as we engage in this debate, because engage we must, let us do so in the time-honoured trade union tradition of respect, of tolerance, and acceptance of diverse views on this issue.

“There is no one right, there are many right views. Let’s represent the diverse identities and cultural backgrounds that we all come from. Because we are the only people who represent that rich, diverse background – no-one else does.

“But as we do this, let’s remember, the primacy of the unity of our movement is the key issue. And it is the essential issue. And we must do nothing to destabilise that.”

Mr Reidy highlighted that many union leaders had fought hard to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality.

He said that agreement created the “space and context” for people who wanted constitutional change to lobby, articulate and advocate for it by peaceful means.

But he said it also provided an equivalent opportunity for those who want to preserve the status quo.

The two-day conference has 200 registered delegates from the 34 trade unions affiliated to the ICTU in Northern Ireland.

A key focus of the event is the cost-of-living crisis and the unions’ collective response to the situation – a campaign titled “Workers Demand Better”.

It is taking place amid a wave of industrial disputes in Northern Ireland over pay rates.