Ireland North: Socialist runs for leader of biggest union

Jobs threatened, pay cuts, increased workloads…public sector workers need fighting, democratic union

This autumn, Socialist Party member Patrick Mulholland is standing for General Secretary of NIPSA, the largest union in Northern Ireland. Patrick is a former President of NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) which represents over 45,000 members from across the civil and public services and the voluntary sector.

Patrick won nominations from over 40 NIPSA branches in the run up to balloting for General Secretary (a minimum of 10 are needed to stand), which after NIPSA-organised official hustings starts on 16 October and closes on 6 November.

Below we republish an article on Patrick’s election campaign from October 2015 issue of The Socialist (monthly paper of the Socialist Party, CWI Ireland), followed by an interview by the paper with Patrick.

Public sector workers in Northern Ireland know only too well what austerity means – job insecurity, increased workloads and a relentless attack on our pay, pensions and working conditions. Austerity has failed to create any growth in our economy yet the Tories in Westminster and sectarian parties in Stormont want to push on regardless.

Workers need trade union leaders who are going to fight for their members and not be part of the austerity consensus.

Patrick Mulholland is seeking election on a record of standing up for members and of building a strong, positive and united union. If elected, he would be the first NIPSA member to be elected General Secretary; all previous incumbents came from within the union officialdom. Patrick has over 20 years’ experience in negotiating with employers, organising campaigns and providing a lead in key industrial battles. He is, first and foremost, a representative of the members. With Patrick Mulholland as General Secretary, NIPSA will be a democratic, campaigning union that reflects members’ wishes and respects members’ decisions.

A workers’ leader on a worker’s wage

For too long, some union leaders have been divorced from conditions of their members. Patrick plans to change that. If elected, he will keep only his current salary and donate the rest to workers’ causes both here and internationally. He will also make all his donations public for all NIPSA members to scrutinise.

In his role as President, Patrick played a key role in building the largest possible strike action on March 13th. He believes workers are strongest when they strike together and rely on their own strength. Along with NIPSA Broad Left, he opposed the union leaders putting the brakes on that movement – he called for the March strike to be followed up with further action to push home the advantage against austerity.

Defending working class unity

Instead, some leaders in the trade union movement took a different line which was to attempt to form alliances with sectarian parties in the hope they would curb the worst aspect of austerity. Patrick is opposed to our movement linking up with sectarian parties who implement austerity. He believes and states openly that we must defend the unity of our movement and build a united fightback against austerity.

Patrick is also a socialist and unashamedly so! He believes in being honest about his politics. Patrick has campaigned as an activist for the accountability of trade union officials who should work within the democratically agreed program of NIPSA. Patrick has been key to developing and arguing for NIPSA’s democratic socialist alternative to austerity. If you agree we need an alternative and we need a fightback then please get involved!

For more info on Patrick and the campaign, visit

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Interview with Patrick Mulholland, Broad Left candidate for NIPSA General Secretary

Patrick Mulholland, who is running in the NIPSA General Secretary election, about the key issues facing public sector workers and the trade union movement, spoke to The Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)

What effect has Stormont [Northern Ireland’s seat of devolved government] and Westminster austerity had on the lives and working condition of NIPSA’s members?

For a start, the Assembly’s redundancy scheme will mean that thousands of public sector jobs will be gone within months. The workforce will be smaller but the workload is not being cut and those of us who are left will have to shoulder an extra burden.

At the same time, public sector workers have seen their living standard eroded in the course of an economic crisis they did not cause. Real wages have fallen as pay rises have failed to match the inflation rate. On top of this, public sector pensions have been under relentless assault in recent years. We should remember that it was the main parties in Stormont that introduced the Public Service Pensions Bill, which means we will be paying more into our pension, but will get less in return when we retire. We will also have to work longer before we receive this reduced sum.

The Tories and the Assembly plan more years of austerity. The election in NIPSA is about having a fighting, democratic trade union that is not prepared to be part of the cosy consensus around austerity. It’s about having a union that is prepared to take action to defend jobs, defend services and defend pay and pension. It is also about putting forward a real alternative to the madness of austerity.

The Tories are in the process of introducing a bill to attack trade union rights. How should our movement respond to these attacks?

The Tories know that their policies are not popular and they know that key to building resistance to them is the trade union movement. These attacks go much further than even Thatcher dared. It will make it more difficult to take strike action and will give even more advantage to employers. One of the most sinister measures involves forcing pickets to give their personal details to the police, opening them up to the possibility of arrest and criminal charges. At least 40% of all eligible members will have to vote for strike action for it to be legal. This is complete hypocrisy from a government elected by only 24% of those eligible to vote.

Trade unions must organise and prepare for robust action to stop these attacks on democratic rights. We must also show solidarity with any union that is attacked by anti-trade union laws

The Stormont Executive is implementing Tory austerity and in the coming period may decide they need to silence and neuter the trade union movement here. Although there are no immediate plans to introduce these measures here, with the crisis at Stormont [the devolved government is currently in a stalemate following rows between the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party over the IRA and austerity policies] and the prospect looming of Tory direct rule, we cannot be complacent. Trade unions in Northern Ireland must be part of the fight to stop this draconian attack on the right to strike. Now is the time to take a stand with our sisters and brothers in Britain before it is too late

On March 13th, tens of thousands of public sector workers engaged in a one day strike against Stormont’s austerity. Unfortunately, this wasn’t followed up by further action. What do we need to do to rebuild this strike action?

March 13th was an important show of strength by tens of thousands of public sector workers against Stormont austerity. However, NIPSA Broad Left and I argued that one day would not be enough to defeat the parties at Stormont and the government at Westminster. We cannot expect the members of NIPSA to simply repeat this failed strategy. Sustained, repeated and united strike action by public sector workers is needed to stop austerity. But members’ action cannot be turned on and off like a tap.

Members have been let down by their leadership on so many occasions that we now have the task of rebuilding the resistance to the cuts carefully and patiently. We need a trade union leadership that will support its members whenever and wherever they take a stand. need a leadership that will assist community and campaigning groups in their efforts to protect services. Local campaigns of working class people and local industrial action by public sector workers can successfully defend local services. Ultimately however, widespread and co-ordinated action, involving all public sector workers, and private sector workers, can defeat Stormont and Westminster and begin to reverse austerity as a policy agenda.

One of the big issues facing the trade union movement is its relationship with the sectarian parties. What are your views on this?

NIPSA has a proud record of organising public sector workers from all backgrounds and has been to the forefront of strikes against sectarian intimidation and attacks over several decades. I am determined to maintain this proud record and will strive to ensure that no words or actions of our union ever put the unity of our union at risk.

The main political parties in Northern Ireland are based in one or other community only. Parties which draw support from one community only are dependent on continuing sectarian division for their very existence. Trade unions have to deal with these sectarian parties in various ways but should never form links, no matter how loose, with such parties. To do so risks the unity of the 220,000 Protestant and Catholic workers who are united in our trade union movement.

Ultimately, a stand against sectarianism means articulating an alternative for working class people. I am in favour of NIPSA taking a political stance on all important issues. This will happen only when the annual conference votes to establish a political fund by a two-thirds majority. I am also in favour of a debate in the wider trade union movement on the need for a new anti-sectarian working class party in Northern Ireland which campaigns for the ideals and aspirations of the trade union movement. It would represent all those who are looking for a new beginning, for politics based on social and economic justice, and for a politics which is anti-sectarian. The formation of such a party would be the biggest challenge in decades to the sectarianism that plagues our society.

NIPSA at its recent Conference voted in favour of a “democratic, socialist economy.” Why is this important?

This is an important step for our union. It is vital that, as well as building the strongest possible union and the strongest possible movement against austerity, we are in a position to put an alternative on the agenda.

We have been told there “isn’t enough money” to run our public services. This simply isn’t true. Figures have estimated that, in the UK alone, major multinationals are hoarding an incredible £750 billion. We need to argue and campaign for a society which is run in the interest of the vast majority of ordinary people, rather than the 1%. That means demanding public control of the massive wealth that exists in society so that it is used for public good, not corporate greed.

Across the world, these ideas are coming back on the agenda. They are certainly not out of date. In my role as NIPSA President, along with the Broad Left-led NIPSA General Council, I was instrumental in developing the union’s alternative to austerity and in developing the discussion on the need for a democratic, socialist economy. I am standing in the election for General Secretary because I believe the union deserves to be led by someone who confidently argues for a real alternative to austerity in order to rebuke the Tories’ and Stormont parties’ lies and propaganda on this issue.

How would your role as NIPSA General Secretary and your membership of the Socialist Party member fit together?

Like everyone in NIPSA and the trade union movement, my political views influence my views on trade union issues. In my case, my politics are socialist and I believe we should live in a democratic society free from sectarian division and that the wealth of the society should be used for all the people, not just the very rich. Fundamentally there is no contradiction between those socialist views and the aims of NIPSA. Like every other socialist, I am bound by union democracy. I have always followed the rule book of the union and carried out the democratic decisions of the membership even when, on very rare occasions, I haven’t agreed with them and or they aren’t in line with my views. As General Secretary, I would continue to take the same approach.

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