Public Affairs

TRADE UNION DESK: Deepening devolution

Now that devolution is back, and the politicians we elect are enjoying the attention of their constituents, it may be time to consider looking at the depth of how we are represented rather than simple headcounts of MLAs in the chamber, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

If there is one lesson from the past 14 years of misrule from English nationalists masquerading as ‘one nation’ political leaders, it is that checks and balances are badly required. Not only in the treatment of regions of the UK with negligible Tory support, but the installation of ideological fellow-travellers to the boards of cultural institutions (Ofcom, the BBC, and universities) and cronies to quangos has left us with a vacuum in human capacity which will take years to undo.

State institutions here and across the UK depended upon a formal ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ on decision-making bodies. There was, nominally at least, a series of moderating influences that kept the more obviously ideological zealots at bay. That has crumbled, especially since 2016 and the new great dividing line of where one stood on Brexit: Were you a true ‘believer’ or an obstructive ‘remoaner’?

That period has seen an acceleration of a trend affecting various parts of civil society, and especially trade unions. In Northern Ireland, public bodies with at least one trade union representative on their board declined from 24 in 1998, to 22 in 2008 to a mere eight in 2023.

Democratically nominated and accountable trade union representatives on Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) have been replaced by retired civil servants, business representatives (including consultants), lawyers, and academics. The voice, expertise, and interests of the workforce have now been excluded from the boards that run or supervise public services.

There are other quangos that trade unions should, or previously did, have representation on until the post-Nolan (Michael Nolan established the independent system for public appointments) appointment processes were introduced, including the Equality Commission (ECNI).

Previously, ECNI and its predecessor organisations have had Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC ICTU) representation on the Board of Commissioners. Not now. This is bewildering given the central role played by the trade union movement over the years in challenging discrimination, and promoting equality and good relations.

There are no trade union voices on the board of the Health and Safety Executive. Really.

In February 2024, the NIC ICTU launched a new document in Parliament Buildings, with Conor Murphy MLA who agreed to ‘sponsor’ the event before becoming Minister for the Economy during the very welcome restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. At the launch, the minister committed to a review of the appointments process.

The new policy paper Democracy at Work Social Dialogue and the Tripartite Model is intended to make the case to MLAs and leaders of public bodies for:

  1. A social dialogue model including trade unions as equal partners, common among administrations across Europe and in these islands.
  2. A form of social dialogue, the ‘tripartite model’ which served us all well at an earlier time of crisis, during the ‘Troubles’ and the more recent Covid pandemic. However, that inclusive model has gradually eroded with trade unions pushed to the sidelines.
  3. Reversing the undermining of the tripartite model on crucial non-departmental public bodies, such as the HSENI, and tribunals.

NIC ICTU sees this as the initial honouring of a pledge made four years ago in New Decade, New Approach, which committed to “creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights… 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…”

When implemented correctly social dialogue leads to better policymaking because it is informed by knowledge and experience from all social partners.

It democratises the policymaking process enhancing its legitimacy and a sense of ownership, and it increases transparency and trust in new policies making them easier to implement with widespread support.

It helps mitigate inequities and ensures representation of communities who are often shut out of the process, and it ensures that we can have economic growth while also creating a more equitable work environment.

It breeds cooperation which in turn nurtures innovation and productivity and better working conditions for all, and it reduces power imbalances in our labour markets which helps to alleviate and ultimately avoid conflicts and disputes.

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