Job creation and workers rights promises made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement must be a priority ahead of May 2022’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, argues the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.
At the end of October, ICTU hosted Northern Ireland’s first significant delegate conference (with people in the big room) since the onset of the pandemic 20 months previously. The hybrid event at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall facilitated 500 voting delegates, observers, press and guests, with 60 per cent socially distanced in the main auditorium and the remainder ‘attending’ remotely but participating fully.
The purpose of the ICTU’s Biennial Delegate Conference (BDC) is to set the policy agenda of the entire trade union movement across this island, as it operates across two jurisdictions, divergent economies, sovereign legislative powers but with a collective leadership addressing common concerns.
Every political party serving on the Northern Ireland Executive attended the conference, a major development considering the admittedly fractious relations between certain departmental ministers over the years with unions representing members whose interests were not contiguous with policy wishes such as ‘rebalancing’ the economy.
This welcome development is a consequence of certain changes in the leadership of more than one party, but it is also the result of much closer co-operation between labour, capital and the state in response to the pandemic.
After years of seeking deeper engagement through a social dialogue forum, common throughout the EU (and devolved Wales), the Northern Ireland Engagement Forum was established in immediate response to the Covid outbreak, initially to agree workplace safety matters. The limited remit of the Forum has nevertheless deepened a mutual understanding between social partners, and improved relations all round.
In addition, closer working within departments to monitor and take remedial action has clarified and steadied industrial relations in sectors which had experienced strikes only weeks before the pandemic. We are not out of the woods yet, as the paltry sub-inflation pay offer from HM Treasury is sparking a new round of ballots for industrial action, but avenues for meaningful dialogue have improved in (almost) every ministry.
In May 2022, the Assembly will have elections in the backdrop of the pandemic and Brexit and its consequences, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the fact that the UK is voluntarily imposing economic sanctions upon itself.
Trade unions will have plenty to say about those issues, but its top priorities are the fulfilment of the promises made in New Decade, New Approach, and reiterated by each party speaking on the stage at the Waterfront Hall:
“An enhanced focus within the Programme for Government on creating good jobs and protecting workers rights. The parties agree that access to good jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy.”