The background to this unprecedented industrial action is the ongoing suspension of the power sharing Executive at Stormont and the refusal of the Tory government to release a financial package to meet the needs of workers in the public sector. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pulled out of the Stormont power-sharing executive in February 2022 in a row over post Brexit trading arrangements. The UK government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton Harris MP, claims that after months of negotiations many of the requirements of the DUP have been met and a £3.3 billion package is on the table. But there is no sign yet of a return of the Executive.
It is reported that the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, wants to return to Stormont but more hardline members of the DUP are demanding that they hold out. Opinion polls show that DUP voters back a hard stance, as they fear that the ‘Irish Sea border’ arrangements undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. Some in the DUP believe that if they wait until a Keir Starmer Labour government comes to power later this year, which seeks to have closer relations with the EU, this could remove some of the checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, which is a major frustration for many Unionists.
Heaton Harris faces a legal deadline to call or again delay new Assembly elections if the Executive has not been restored by January 18. The Assembly has been on ice for more than 40% of the time since power-sharing was established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that saw the end of three decades of armed conflict. As the CWI pointed out at the time, power-sharing based on sectarian blocks would always mean instability and that the Executive would be prone to collapse.
Heaton Harris has said that without an Executive up and running, the £3.3 billion package, including nearly £600 million for public sector pay rises, will be unavailable. However this claim is largely interpreted in the North as a stick to use against the DUP to try to force them back into the Assembly.
Finances in severe crisis
Northern Ireland’s public finances are in severe crisis. Senior civil servants in Belfast who are running Northern Ireland in the absence of the Stormont Executive have slashed services severely. The North has the worst hospital waiting lists in the UK. Little wonder that so far a dozen unions have called for a mass strike action on January 18. “We are preparing a general strike for 18 January to force his [Heaton Harris’s] hand, if he hasn’t delivered by then, said Carmel Gates.
So far, the Tory government has ruled out giving funds for public-sector workers unless Stormont is back in operation. This is commonly regarded as a crude sanction being used by the Westminster Tory government against the DUP. Workers understandably feel that they are being used as a political football and are having to pay for the ongoing political and financial crisis. Such is the widespread frustration and anger among public sector workers, whose wages have fallen by thousands of pounds behind those of their counterparts in Britain, that not just the larger unions, like NIPSA, Unite, Unison and the GMB but other smaller unions, including the Royal College of Nurses union, the Society of Radiographers, National Association of Head Teachers, Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and British Dietetic Association are taking action.
Supporters of Militant Left (the CWI in Ireland) are playing a key role in some of the trade unions and local trades union councils in preparation for the historic strike action. Several mass workers’ rallies will take place on 18 January, including in Belfast, Derry, Omagh, Enniskillen, Cookstown and Magherafelt.
This is an important opportunity to develop the workers’ campaign for decent wages. It must not end on the 18th but rather this massive display of workers power, which will largely shut down the North, should be a launching pad for further industrial and other action to force the Tories to pay up. For Militant Left, the 18th January also shows the potential political power of the working class united. From this mass action, a discussion and debate should be launched within the workers’ movement about the need for independent political representation and opposition to the sectarian based political parties and the Tory party of big business.
Workers are strongest when fighting with both hands – the industrial and the political. The 18th January will show that the working class is the single most powerful force in society. Important initiatives towards building a political alternative for the working class, as steps towards building a broad mass party of the working class, with a bold socialist programme that can cut across the sectarian divide, can arise from this historic day of action.