Opinion

Once again there is one law for the British and another for the Irish

Our main political parties no longer do protest. Sinn Féin and the DUP, both founded on protest, are now too respectable to protest with the rest of us

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Rishi Sunak has offered public sector workers in Britain a pay rise, but Northern Ireland workers have been left behind
Rishi Sunak has offered public sector workers in Britain a pay rise, but Northern Ireland workers have been left behind Rishi Sunak has offered public sector workers in Britain a pay rise, but Northern Ireland workers have been left behind

The civil rights movement was based on the argument that if, as Britain claimed, we were British, we were entitled to British rights. The movement achieved most of what we demanded and brought us into line with the rest of the UK in terms of fairness and equality.

Today there is a need for a similar equality campaign: if we are British, give us British pay. Rishi Sunak has offered pay increases of up to seven per cent to English public sector workers, including junior doctors, teachers and civil servants.

Here Chris Heaton-Harris has offered our public sector workers absolutely nothing. Once again there is one law for the British and a different one for the Irish. This discrimination indicates that Mr Heaton-Harris has downgraded us from a colony to a ghetto. Welcome to the two-tier world of the (not very) United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly none of the five main political parties has offered significant protest. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that they are hardly qualified to speak on wages since their MLAs get paid for doing nothing. They have become our regional royalty, funded by the public purse for waving, smiling and greeting mere ordinary people, while not actually doing anything. Occasionally they speak out (usually against each other), complaining about how disgraceful things are, even though they are all responsible for that disgrace.

The second reason is that they hope to be back in government. If they support wage demands now they will be obliged to deliver them in office, but they are unlikely to have sufficient funds. So silence is the better part of valour.

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Anyway, our main political parties no longer do protest. SF and the DUP, both founded on protest, are now too respectable to protest with the rest of us. SF, for example, might be expected to lead protests against Daisy Hill hospital’s run-down. Instead they claim the Southern Health Trust must “get its act together”.

Perhaps Stormont needs to get its act together first. By walking out of the health ministry in 2017 for three years, SF left the Southern Trust unaccountable (and left us unprepared for Covid).

Meanwhile, the most recent election here was fought not on issues of pay, poverty or prices, but on which party would be the biggest. Heaton-Harris must have laughed all the way to the Cabinet Office. He knows his political arrogance will not generate political protest.

However, protest is coming – not from politicians, but from those suffering pay discrimination. A trade union umbrella body warns of a “carnival of industrial unrest” this autumn unless public sector workers’ pay here matches that in Britain.

Heaton-Harris claims there is no money for pay rises, but pay inequality is just another lever to embarrass the DUP into Stormont. (History shows the DUP cannot be embarrassed.) His government has ample money. It is spending £7 billion to restore Westminster (it would take a lot more to restore its credibility), £6bn for an aircraft carrier (which has no aircraft to carry) and an estimated £100bn to allow rail passengers to travel from London to Birmingham half an hour more quickly.

We used to have nationalist ghettoes here. Many unionist areas were also ghettoes, but they were unaware of it. Now Heaton-Harris has created one big ghetto.

Perhaps he is following the example of our political parties. They have already established a sub-ghetto here by giving only those who live near Derry, Craigavon and Belfast a fair chance of surviving when needing emergency medical treatment. The rest of us are on our own.

Like the civil rights movement, trades unions are non-sectarian. It will be interesting to observe non-sectarian workers’ protesting on the streets in support of fairness and equality, while sectarian politicians sit silently at home in publicly funded inactivity.

It will illustrate why our society is the way it is.