Over the last number of years Northern Ireland’s largest trade union, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) had been at the heart of the struggle against austerity and cuts introduced by the Assembly through the Stormont House Agreement and more recently through the Fresh Start agreement. NIPSA, which had a NIPSA Broad Left majority on its ruling body, the General Council, was central to building the resistance through protests and the strike action that brought NI to a standstill in March 2015.
In recent times, however, NIPSA has almost disappeared from the scene. In part that is a result of the defeat of the struggle against the cuts and a capitulation by the majority of trade unions to the introduction of the Fresh Start agreement. In part also, the downturn in NIPSA’s resistance to the cuts coincided with the election of a new General Council with a majority for the right wing Unity faction. When the Council election results were announced in February, the Unity faction heralded its success with a photo of them taken outside NIPSA HQ with a banner stating “Under New Management”. Since the General Secretary election, most officials in NIPSA are regarded as being aligned with the Unity faction. Despite holding a majority on Council, however, the Unity faction did not enjoy much success in the elections that took place at the annual conference in May, and the activists elected the 3 NIPSA Broad Left candidates to the Officer positions of President, Vice-President and Treasurer.
The first action by the Unity faction in power was to bring an end to the democratic processes that had been established by the NIPSA Broad Left which was to share places on Council sub-committees with Unity members. The Broad Left had not used its majority to silence or exclude. That practice was binned by Unity who not only excluded NIPSA Broad Left members of Council from sitting on committees but unconstitutionally excluded the elected officers of the union from being part of the committees. Essentially they overturned the democratic wishes of members by putting onto the committees the 3 unelected candidates for the officer positions. They then compounded their actions by doctoring the minutes of that meeting to make it look like the Officers had excluded themselves.
Since the right wing Unity faction took control, they have turned NIPSA in on itself by attacking NIPSA activists instead of fighting the cuts. NIPSABroad Left activists are finding themselves the victim of spurious complaints and facing unwarranted disciplinary action. In a failed attempt to silence activists, particularly NIPSA Broad Left activists, they brought forward a media policy that would have meant activists, including those in protests and on strike could not engage with the media.
The process of reviewing NIPSA’s election procedures, which had been initiated by the NIPSA Broad Left to ensure fairness and transparency in our election process has been rendered meaningless by the Unity group. The Broad Left had wanted to ensure that all members could receive ballot papers without interference but despite the admission by Unity that there had been ‘monkeying about with the rules’, and despite complaints by members about how elections had been conducted, the proposals by the Broad Left including one for an independent audit were not agreed.
Democracy in NIPSA is now a joke. The nonsense finally reached its peak when the Unity faction boycotted the September General Council meeting. Farcically, they boycotted the meeting of a body on which they hold the majority. The business of 43,000 members was halted because the Unity group didn’t get their way over an issue that affected just 2 members. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.
But despite the lack of leadership, NIPSA Broad Left activists are continuing to fight and continuing to build the resistance. We are continuing to fight the cuts to Health and Education services. We are continuing to fight cuts in Councils, the Housing Executive and the community and voluntary sector. We are continuing and strengthening the resistance to welfare cuts, office closures and the austerity agenda of the Stormont Executive. NIPSA’s Broad Left will continue to do what it can to ensure that public services are protected. We will not let the undemocratic forces within the Unity faction silence us. We are fighting back.