Heartbreak this Valentines for NIC-ICTU?

NIC-ICTU shouldn’t expect many Valentine’s this year, writes Tyler McNally.

The Irish News has been awash with headlines that have brought discomfort to the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU’s Assistant General Secretary, Peter Bunting. The coverage has been the result of a call from Strabane Area Trade Union Council (SATUC) demanding Bunting’s resignation following NIC-ICTU’s endorsement of the ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement.

Devised in late 2015 as an attempt to patch together the fall out from the ‘Stormont House’ Agreement, ‘Fresh Start’ allowed our politicians to agree to disagree on matters of the past, whilst copper fastening the neo-liberal commitments enshrined in the failed ‘Stormont House’ Agreement. These commitments included the introduction of Welfare Reform, the reduction of Corporation Tax by 2018 and the continuation of the Voluntary Exit Scheme, which is set to axe nearly 20,000 jobs from our public services. NIC-ICTU attracted flak when, after nearly a weeks radio silence, they endorsed ‘Fresh Start’ because it avoided Direct Rule from Westminster.

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Since the collapse of Stalinism in the late 20th Century, Trade Unions have largely accepted Social Democracy, in particular the idea of ‘Social Partnership,’ with agreements to not strike in return for agreed pay rises and other concessions. It worked for a period in the boom and Trade Union leaders enjoyed being ‘peace time generals,’ this rosy period came to an end with the ’08 Financial Crash. Suddenly these leaders where wedged between angry members who wanted to fight for their jobs and services and on the other side, politicians and bosses who were pushing the neo liberal agenda.

Here, ICTU’s Northern Ireland Committee (NIC-ICTU) appear to have embodied this strategy of partnership and ‘negotiation’ to the tune of supporting the political institutions on the hill, they have in the past organised rallies to support the Haas talks (remember them?) and find themselves supporting a neo-liberal peace process.

Why? It’s a lack of strategy, a view that these bodies that are dysfunctional, sectarian and have taken away millions in austerity measures from workers, must be preserved to prevent Direct Rule. Instead of envisioning a society with a genuine peace process and dividend for working people, ICTU allows itself to be trapped in the vice of pragmatism and questionable logic. A matter all but confirmed by Bunting himself in an Irish News article when he states:

the inevitability of having a major oppositional campaign against our own politicians was catastrophic in the long term for us.”

So, with NIC-ICTU willing to throw 20,000 members under the bus, in the hope that the dysfunctional institution that is Stormont can lessen the blow of austerity, has understandably left Trade Unionists questioning the decision of the NIC-ICTU committee and the future of leading members, like Bunting. Especially considering that the proposed lowering of Corporation Tax could strike £500m from our block grant, which will cause further and more severe spending cuts.

The people who oppose NIC-ICTU’s position on the ‘Fresh Start’ haven’t come from nowhere, opposition has been brewing for years as NIC-ICTU promised ongoing campaigns of opposition to austerity that disappeared after the largest strike mobilisations in recent history, November 30th 2011 & March 13th 2015, which ended up losing momentum.

There have been calls for fresh, sustained action from groups on the far left and trade unionists, which have been met with promises of further action that haven’t been delivered upon. Those who oppose NIC-ICTU’s endorsement of ‘Fresh Start’ are unhappy with the relationship NIC-ICTU has been fostering with our local political parties, who even refused to make a statement on ‘Fresh Start’ until they had ‘consulted with the local politicians.’ A move which angered grassroots activists.

It has already been suggested that the decision to back ‘Fresh Start’ was backed by the Northern Ireland Committee, not just Bunting, so this isn’t the case of one lone wolf. Whereas this story began with SATUC demanding Bunting’s resignation, it has developed to include a leading NIPSA activist calling the whole NIC-ICTU committee into question, Patrick Mulholland, a member of NIPSA’s Broad Left group, was quoted in an Irish News article stating:

If they (NIC-ICTU) are accepting collective responsibility for their decision, it’s the wrong decision and they should reverse that decision or consider their own position.”

His comments followed Jackie Pollock’s, a NIC-ICTU Committee member, who stated Bunting had the “support” of the entire committee. So Bunting’s resignation may not actually spur on the change in direction that the opposition wants it to move in.

Unless something escalates this issue out of the Irish News and into wider circles, it is unlikely that Peter Bunting will resign, but this whole debacle should serve as a reminder for the future; people are not going to accept cop outs from NIC-ICTU in the future and next time the calls for resignation may be louder, making it harder for NIC-ICTU to drown them out.

Tyler is the Editor of ‘The Last Round,’ you can follow him on Twitter.

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