Saturday, 7 November 2009

Northern Ireland Executive condemned by Irish Congress of Trade Unions

We have in this region an Executive which is

no longer fit for purpose.'

© Joe ÓNéill 2009

Despite heavy rainfall, hundreds of trade union members marched from job sites to protest rallies in cities and towns in Northern Ireland yesterday, to protest looming cuts in public sector jobs.

Rallies organised by the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were held in Belfast, Derry, Omagh, Enniskillen, Coleraine, Craigavon, Armagh, Ballymena, Magherafelt, and Newry as thousands also protested in the south of Ireland.

The NICICTU called on the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to make the defense of public services and protection and creation of jobs in the private and public sectors an urgent priority.

Peter Bunting, ICTU Assistant General Secretary told the Belfast rally: 'We need to cherish our public servants because they are the backbone of the real economy, not small businesses, not multinationals and certainly not the top bankers. In a recession like this, the only source of demand in the economy is coming from the public sector.'

Despite the criticism, several elected representatives attended the rally including; Minister for Health Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey, MLAs Alex Maskey, and Sue Ramsey.

The full speech is reproduced below.

Fellow workers, friends and comrades.

We are here today to expose bloat, waste and time-serving at the heart of the public sector.

I am talking about, of course, the people who rule us, who write the laws, frame the budget, those who serve in the Assembly and in Westminster . The people we elect who have fiddled while the economy burns, - just as some may have been fiddling their expenses.

The public is being short changed and it is time for payback.

We have in this region an Executive which is no longer fit for purpose.

They squabble over the devolution of policing and justice.

They prevaricate over education.

They cannot agree on a Bill of Rights.

They have no clear shared method to tackle sectarianism and racism.

At the same time, they act as if the out dated Programme for Government reflects reality. To which we must ask: What colour is the sky over Stormont?

The Programme for Government talked of creating six-and-a-half thousand new jobs, - with some even above the minimum wage. Meanwhile in the place where the skies are Grey and the outlook always overcast, almost 50,000 jobs have gone in the past year.

53,000 people are unemployed and another 300,000 are cast aside in the ranks of the economically inactive.

The construction industry has been demolished, the retail sector is in a permanent closing down sale and manufacturing is covered in rust.

Where are the drastic actions being taken?

Where is the sense of crisis?

What is to be done?

Why is this economic crisis not the number one priority?

Why does it matter so damn much about the names of sports grounds?

Politics is about power. Power is about exercising choices. The choices made by the Executive and the Assembly have been misplaced.

Get with a new programme. One which places at the centre of our politics the daily lives of its citizens. We need more jobs. We need a vibrant private sector. We need more start-ups and we need to create more research and development.

We need to keep our graduates at home. We need to capitalise upon the creativity and humour and intelligence of our young and the experience and training of our older workers.

We need to understand that the best solution to poverty and social exclusion is work. Work in well-paid, humanely rewarding and unionised careers.

We have problems that need to be fixed. Our physical and social infrastructure is not remotely up to scratch.

We need to embrace the creative thinking behind a Green New Deal which sustains and nourishes more than our fragile environment. We need to re-think who our economy is supposed to serve.

We need to re-order our priorities. We need to think bigger than call-centres paying the minimum wage to graduates who can only meet the pressures of a consumer society through credit which is no longer cheap or available.

We need to challenge the consensus that cuts are inevitable in our public services because we just have to keep the bankers in the luxury and bonuses to which they have become accustomed.

We need to cherish our public servants because they are the backbone of the real economy, not small businesses, not multinationals and certainly not the top bankers.

In a recession like this, the only source of demand in the economy is coming from the public sector. We hear much about how well-paid the public sector is, compared to the private sector.

First, tell that to a cleaner, or a classroom assistant or a nurse, or a dole clerk.

Second, the real pay gap is not between the private sector and the public sector in Northern Ireland . The real pay gap is the 20% difference between private sector workers here and private sector workers across the water. That is the real pay gap to contend with.

And yet Northern Ireland is sold to foreign investors by Invest Northern Ireland for its cheap labour. And we are supposed to be grateful for that.

If low wages created jobs we would not have 350,000 of our citizens unemployed or economically inactive. Low wages create poverty.

There is a third important point about the public sector you won’t hear about too often from our political classes or read about from the experts in the business press. The public sector spends more money on supporting the private sector than it does on paying public servants.

All the suppliers, who depend on contracts to the schools and public offices,

the service providers to the police and the health service,

the builders of roads and museums,

the profiteers of the Private Finance Initiative,

even the consultants so beloved by Northern Ireland Water,

they take a bigger slice of the public budget than the health workers and the firefighters and the police officers and the social workers and the teachers and the university scientists and all the other public servants put together.

So when you hear the common and cheap mantra from the CBI and the IOD and the usual suspects in the Belfast Telegraph and UTV and the Assembly about making the public sector more lean and mean, what you are hearing is the self-appointed cheerleaders for the private sector cutting off their nose to spite their own face. People operating out of self interest, not in the public interest.

That is what I mean about the public sector as the backbone of our economy. Other speakers here today can make clearer than I, the huge social impact which public service workers make to the daily lives of all of us.

We should be grateful for that, of course, and show that gratitude and respect to every public servant we meet on a daily basis, from the bus driver, to the care assistant, to the traffic attendant to the postal worker.

Especially today, the postal workers of the Communications Workers Union who are making huge sacrifices to keep a universal postal service publicly owned and answerable to the people, not to some Chief Executive Officer who demands a salary of £1 million and yet refuses to meet his workers.

The message I am trying to get across to those who disparage the public sector is its vital role in keeping Northern Ireland afloat now, in this recession, just as they did in the darkest years of our recent past.

Any so-called economist or business expert, or any of their cheerleaders in the press or the Assembly who cannot see that bigger picture is not up to their job. If we must make cuts in employment, maybe we could start with them.

This meeting is as important as when we were here last March, after the murders in Masserene and Craigavon. Then, we were here to defend our democracy.

Now, we are demanding that the democracy we defended does its bit for our economy and our shared society.

Last April, we were here again to defend the workers at Visteon and Nortel and Shorts who were facing job losses in the private sector. We are here today and still sending the same message.

What unites workers is their common humanity, - we do not recognise false distinctions between workers in the public or the private sector.

Support the public sector.

Support decent jobs and pensions for all workers.

Challenge those who make ignorant assumptions about what makes an economy efficient.

Oppose those who try to plant a wedge between private sector workers and public sector workers.

Build an alternative vision for a Northern Ireland which is fit for purpose, for all of its inhabitants.

Thanks for listening.

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