Dissent and devolution; notes on the Unison strike

It’s a shame the Northern Irish press chose to emphasise two things in its coverage of yesterday’s Unison strike: service disruption and the low strike ballot turn-out.

The strike was about budget cuts and the declining quality of service provision, rather than a narrow question of wages or conditions. The strike was essentially designed to forestall further, more intractable service disruption in the coming years. The media implication that health workers are indifferent to missed appointments and suffering patients is absurd.

The low ballot turn-out is something of a non-issue too; apart from the myriad technical reasons behind poor responses to union postal ballots, stories in which Edwin Poots boasts about his willingness to ‘take the tough decisions’ don’t tend to make snide references to the scanty legitimacy conferred on Stormont decisions by low election-time turnouts. A few quick sums show the parties who voted for the current Stormont budget (DUP, SF, and Alliance) received the support of around a third of the North’s eligible electors in May. Of course no party predicted an impact on ‘frontline services’.

A more interesting point raised by the Unison strike is how difficult it is to make something of political dissent in a devolved region. Health is devolved, of course, but the fate of its budget can be traced to the block grant. A strike or protest can shed light on a looming social ill, and the local minister can blow out his cheeks, make a solemn face, and say his hands are tied by Westminster.

Tommy Steenson, the chair of the Unison group at Belfast City Hospital, seemed very pleased with the strike turnout, saying it was “sending a big message to the employer.” This is reflective of the unions’ muddled, if worthy thinking. Steenson clarified that the strike was directed against the trust, but also looked ahead to the UK-wide strikes on November 30th, hoping these will reverse the overall thrust of the Coalition’s austerity measures. The branch secretary Colin McQuillan, told me that the strike “has to be about putting pressure on Westminster.”

In the afternoon, the Queen’s University branch of the campaigning group Free Education for Everyone met in a campus classroom. Here too, most of the talk was about ‘ideological assaults’ from Westminster. When talk turned to tactics, most of the ideas led to occupation of university buildings or protests of Belfast landmarks. One of the more perceptive speakers said “the real question is; who is the enemy? London, Stormont, or university management?” The question was left unresolved, and no substantive aims or plans were agreed upon.

Needless to say, a strike or protest in a devolved region simply won’t register in London. When pressed, leaders in the health trusts or colleges can point to Stormont. The Stormont minister points to the block grant and Westminster. Local pundits can be relied upon to parrot that ‘the cake is only so big.’ Muddled lines of accountability for issues of great importance lead to muddled, amorphous campaigns of dissent. Campaigns with legitimate grievances and public support then struggle to gain traction, and the vulnerable inevitably lose out.