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North’s unions wary of South’s embrace of Sinn Féin

After a difficult journey, North's unions are anti-sectarian, anti-one-sided parties and anti-austerity

By Anton McCabe

Growing links between some unions in the Republic and Sinn Féin are causing certain concerns in the Northern trade union movement. While in the North the trade unions largely succeeded in holding together in a period of communal division, as part of wider society they are not immune from its tensions.
In the past there were significant sectarian splits, both in the Post-World War One period, and after World War Two. In the 1970s, there was a campaign to set up an ‘Ulster TUC’, withdrawing from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and establishing what would have been a Protestant trade union federation. This did not take off. Recently, there have been rumblings from some Loyalists about moving to set up some sort of new union. This, so far, has not even had the limited momentum of the 1970s.
However, there are fears a volatile situation could open up if the Sinn Féin-trade union link develops in the Republic. Sinn Féin has largely occupied the Social Democratic space formerly occupied by the Labour Party. Union leaders such as ICTU President John Douglas and SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor have spoken of working with the party.
Already among many Unionists there is a perception that unions have a nationalist agenda. Ironically, in the past it was Nationalists who were negative. Forty years ago, the perceived ‘typical’ Northern trade unionist was a Protestant male in engineering. At the time a significant section of nationalists saw trade unions as ‘Protestant’ and defenders of job discrimination – despite some of the leading figures in the Provisional IRA, such as John Kelly and Brian Keenan, having trade union backgrounds.
Because of the run-down of traditional manufacturing, the stereotype of the typical trade unionist now is of a Catholic woman in the public sector.
As before, this is simplistic. Since the Northern Assembly was set up, those politicians perceived as closest to the trade union movement have been Unionists. When David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson sat in the Assembly for the Progressive Unionist Party, they were members of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (now part of UNITE). They regularly met senior union figures to discuss how to promote a union agenda. Former Ulster Unionist Assembly member Fred Cobain was also seen as very union-friendly.
A significant factor is that the North’s unions have fared better than their brothers and sisters in the rest of the UK. They have retained a relatively high membership. At 35%, Northern union membership is the second highest of any part of the UK. There has been a 23,000 increase in trade union membership in the last 10 years. This still represents a 7% drop in percentage terms. The North has the highest percentage of employees covered by collective agreements of any part of the UK.
That numerical strength hides certain weaknesses. Twenty-six percent of the workforce is in the public sector, the highest percentage of any part of the UK. That public-sector workforce is strongly unionised. Outside the public sector, union membership is patchy. Where such exists, there is generally not the same level of organisation.
The North’s unions have, despite those weak points, had a degree of success. In March, there was a widely followed one-day strike across much of the public sector. This was a first for the North’s trade union movement, in that it was political – against the Belfast Agreement, and thus against an Executive that contains the five main parties, including Sinn Féin. However, the campaign against cuts in public spending has not since had the same degree of public visibility.
Meanwhile, the political issue continues to simmer. A spokesperson for ICTU in the North said that the unions have been independent of political parties “as has been demonstrated over 50 years”. At its Irish conference the UNITE union, which has a sizeable membership on both sides of the Border, went further and passed a motion that the union “does not form links of any description or give support either directly or indirectly to political parties which are one sided and sectarian, or parties which are pro-austerity”.
Clearly, a trade union-Sinn Féin deal is not a given. •