Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 8 July 2020

Covid pandemic and Northern Ireland - workers must resist the bosses' offensive

Nipsa members on strike outside Stormont, Northern Ireland, 26.7.19, photo Carmel Gates

Nipsa members on strike outside Stormont, Northern Ireland, 26.7.19, photo Carmel Gates   (Click to enlarge)

Donal O'Cofaigh, CCLA councillor and Militant Left member (CWI Ireland)

The coronavirus pandemic hit Northern Ireland at the very same time as the political parties in the Assembly (Stormont) were re-establishing a power-sharing Executive for the first time in over three years.

A major contributory factor to that political development was the victory of the Conservative party in the general election, which settled the status of the Brexit deal - a major cause of division between the parties.

But another factor was the huge growing public revulsion at political parties on either side of the historical nationalist/unionist community divide, which are responsible for an extended political stalemate at a time of mounting economic and social challenges.

A new crisis at Stormont has broken out following the attendance of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of a well-known Republican, Bobby Storey.

First Minister and DUP leader, Arlene Foster, called for O'Neill to stand down while an investigation is made into whether she and other Sinn Féin leaders broke coronavirus social distancing guidelines during the funeral.

O'Neill is adamant she stuck to the rules. While the Stormont Executive is unlikely to fall over this latest clash, it goes to show how shaky it remains.

The strike of tens of thousands of public sector workers in the health and civil service over low pay and staff shortages was decisive in forcing the hand of the politicians.

The hope of the parties for an extended 'honeymoon' after concluding a power-sharing deal was dashed as the divisions between the parties reopened over issues as varied as whether to follow the lead of Dublin or London in the lockdown, the deployment of the British army in distributing PPE, and conflicting attempts to source PPE by procurement in conjunction with Dublin or London.


While the politicians flailed around in the face of the crisis - the forward momentum of the trade unions continued, especially during the initial stage of lockdown.

Workers organised to force shutdowns and furlough agreements, unofficial walkouts forced meatpacking companies to provide basic infection controls, and in the public sector, legal action was threatened to ensure the provision of PPE in health and social care settings.

However, as the weeks wore on, a demobilisation of the working class increasingly took its toll. Many workers were absent from workplaces and dependent on employer-sanctioned furlough arrangements which only provided 80% of their wage.

Trade union democracy was put on ice by officials from above as a means to affect a class truce between workers and bosses (see below). At the same time, companies increasingly sought to use the pandemic as an excuse to bring forward redundancies and attacks on wages and terms and conditions of employment.

Even the more proactive and ostensibly 'left' trade union leaderships sought to reduce workers' struggle through securing con-cessions on infection controls and state bailouts for private businesses via partnership-type arrangements with the Stormont government.

As the Tory government in London and the caretaker government in Dublin both rapidly executed their 'reemergence', pressure grew on the laggard Assembly Executive for similar moves.

The pressure was foremost exhibited through threats and actual job losses - in aviation, aerospace, retail and hospitality in particular.

Young people

The militancy which formed around the Black Lives Matter movement was driven by young people - many of who were forced out of jobs in the first weeks of the pandemic shutdown.

Tens of thousands of young workers on zero-hour contracts suddenly had no hours and no comeback with their bosses. Agency workers were no longer required. Temporary and permanent workers with less than a year's service were seen as fair game as they had no redundancy rights either.

Many students lost part-time jobs but retained responsibility to pay enormous rents to student slum landlords.

When the mobilisation of Black Lives Matter arrived a new generation fed up of racism, and also sectarianism, came out onto the streets, and showed their opposition. But in the hours before major mobilisations in Belfast and Derry, the Stormont Executive passed legislation giving police powers to impose fines on those attending protests of over six.

All shades of the political establishment were a party to this move - which effectively limited the right to free assembly. At the same time, the Executive's Health Department announced plans to give itself special Covid powers to close health and social care services without any formal consultation.

This can only be interpreted as a power grab to better deliver a programme of closures and privatisation, which has been delayed as a result of grassroots and trade union campaigns for over a decade.

The threats posed to Northern Ireland's economy are stark. The aviation sector is under huge pressure. Flybe, the mainstay of Belfast City Airport, collapsed - casting a shadow over that airport's future. Hundreds of jobs have been lost in the other major airport, Belfast International, with cutbacks by Easyjet and Jet2.

The hugely significant aerospace and defence industry has already suffered major layoffs and remains under huge threat as the sector faced a potentially permanent global contraction.

The other two pillars of the economy, agriculture/food and pharmaceuticals, are hugely exposed to any adverse headwinds from Brexit. Should a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic reemerge in the context of a breakdown in trade negotiations between London and Brussels - an increasingly likely prospect - they too will face tremendous pressures.

Economic outlook

Northern Ireland's economy faces a period of grave instability. Like everywhere else in this global downturn, there is an ever-growing 'reserve army of labour'. The likelihood is, if the trade union movement does not take the lead in a fightback over jobs and living standards, then workers will struggle to avoid a sharp downturn in conditions.

Covid will be used by employers to further depress workers' conditions and the neoliberal establishment will push forward with attempts to cut back on the vestigial public services.

Running contrary to that is the growing numbers of workers turning to the trade unions - in part a new generation but also new sectors of the workforce. It seems likely that this will result in widening and deepening struggle in trade unions between militant workers and a conservative officialdom.

What seems even more likely, is that demands for nationalisation of industries will reinvigorate the demand for socialist politics which transcends the divisions which have marked previous politics.

While it represents a colossal challenge, Covid has accelerated underlying trends in society, opening open the door to working-class politics which can prepare the way to build a mass party of workers with a socialist programme to challenge capitalism.

Nipsa - fight the 'coup', yes to union democracy

The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa) the largest trade union in the north of Ireland, had a strong reputation as a democratic union. But the recent actions of its ruling body, the General Council (GC), has deeply damaged that reputation.

Nipsa postponed its 2020 Annual Delegate Conference following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of a conference, the union began a direct ballot of its 160-plus branches who elect the union officers - President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and various committees.

The election process was due to close on 10 June. But before the election could run its course, 14 members of the so-called Independent Group on the 25-member GC used their majority to cancel the election and appoint their own people as top officers.

They used the spurious excuse that this was necessary because Nipsa branches have stopped functioning due to Covid-19, and members could not be consulted.

However, this manoeuvre was exposed when two-and-a-half hours after a circular was issued cancelling the elections, a new circular was issued instructing all Nipsa Northern Ireland Civil Service branches to consult members on pay.

This blatant gerrymandering of the elections is a direct challenge to the union's 44,000 membership. Already branches are in an uproar. Every branch of the union should be calling upon the GC majority to respect democratic rights and hold real elections.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • We must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation £


Your message: 


In The Socialist 8 July 2020:

Workplace news

Fantastic virtual NSSN conference: "Fight for our lives and livelihoods''

Homerton hospital workers deserve equal pay and conditions

Jobcentre reopening: only union struggle will put safety first

Southampton UCU: election victory for combative rank and file

Tower Hamlets council workers strike against wholesale attack on terms and conditions

Nottingham unions fight council job cuts


Fight for every job, fight for socialism

Tory NHS betrayal

Young people have no choice but to fight the system

Leicester: End the scandal of sweatshop labour

Covid pandemic and Northern Ireland - workers must resist the bosses' offensive

£1,600 less benefits if your job goes - while super-rich splash cash

Testing: Tories' £5bn gift to private sector

Johnson blames care workers for deaths

£3bn green pledge: not enough for climate or jobs

Poverty rises again - especially for BAME workers

Them and us

No going back

No going back: Nationalise social care!


The best place to start - join the Socialist Party

Trans rights protests oppose Tory backsliding

Black Lives Matter - the fight is not over

International news

Hong Kong: The fight for democratic rights

Bangladesh: Stop closure and privatisation of Jute Mills

Readers' opinion

TV: The school that tried to end racism

Books that inspired me: The Fire Next Time

The Socialist Inbox


Home   |   The Socialist 8 July 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:

Northern Ireland:

triangleSocialist candidate wins NIPSA general secretary election

triangleNorthern Ireland and Brexit

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Northern Ireland - what lies ahead?

triangleTV review: Three Families is excellent. But protest movement is missing

triangleBritish state absolves itself from killings during 'the Troubles'


triangleReinstate Gary Evans! Llanelli postal workers strike

triangleUniversity workers ballot for strike action

triangleFight to defend homelessness services

triangleBrighton bin workers' victory in sight against Green-led council


triangleSocialist Party national youth meeting

triangleLeeds Socialist Party: Ireland and the national question

triangleNUJ leadership pushes through subs increase but left lands blows at conference


triangleTories to blame for GP crisis

triangleDVLA: Workers ballot on further strike action


triangleClick here for a report. Speakers included: Sharon Graham - newly-elected Unite gen sec; Sarah Woolley - BFAWU gen sec; Carmel Gates - Nipsa gen sec (designate); Joe Simpson - POA deputy gen sec; Joe Kirby - RMT NEC & offshore worker


triangleNapo AGM 2021: Union placed on war footing

News and socialist analysis

News and socialist analysis



People's Budgets - a socialist answer to cruel cuts


Climate change

COP26: Trade unions must fight for a socialist transition to renewables



Fight for a socialist recovery



Tories to blame for GP crisis



Container delay carnage makes the case for socialist planning



Fight to defend homelessness services



Socialist nationalisation not bailouts for the bosses


Climate change

Save the planet from capitalist climate catastrophe



Cynical Johnson government no friend of workers



Workers need a pay rise



Fight for the pay rise we deserve



News in brief



Social care funding needed now


Climate change

Build a mass working-class climate movement with socialist policies



Socialism 2021 event: 19-21 November 2021

triangleMore News and socialist analysis articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793



Alphabetical listing

October 2021

September 2021

August 2021

July 2021

June 2021

May 2021

April 2021

March 2021

February 2021

January 2021