Dublin - Belfast "Enterprise" train crossing a viaduct with a lake in the foreground

UK rail strikes continue and now involve Northern Ireland

An Enterprise express between Dublin and Belfast. The status of these prestige cross-border trains during any industrial action is jeopardised Translink

It was good news then bad news. Last week, members of the RMT union returned an expected acceptance of the employers’ pay offer. A day later, sister union, ASLEF began more than a week of action. An overtime ban and a rolling programme of outright strikes has led to disruption across almost every England-based passenger train operation. Scotland and Wales stand aloof from the current action, but now, for the first time, there’s industrial action looming in Northern Ireland.

In an unconnected dispute, unions representing transport workers in Northern Ireland called out their members for an all-out one day strike on Friday last week (1 December 2023). There is the concern that the action will be repeated in the run up to Christmas. Almost all public transport is under the administration of a single body, Translink. The advantage of co-ordination is offset by the vulnerability of the network to Industrial action across all modes of transport. The action last Friday was the first such strike since 2015.

Members proud of their role

Industrial action on the railways has spread to Northern Ireland. The dispute is unconnected with the long-standing series of bitter disputes which have hit British passenger operators and the infrastructure agency Network Rail for over a year. While the train drivers union ASLEF remains in active dispute in England, resolutions have been reached with the employers’ representatives in Scotland and Wales, and with Network Rail. The largest union in the industry, the RMT, reached an expected resolution at the end of November.

Hull Trains Paragon service passing Humber Bridge
Open access operators are not involved in the ASLEF dispute, including Hull Trains, seen here operating this Paragon branded service passing the Humber Bridge.

“Our members have spoken in huge numbers to accept this unconditional pay offer and no compulsory redundancies until the end of 2024”, said Mick Lynch the union’s general secretary. “We will be negotiating further with the train operators over reforms they want to see. We will never shy away from vigorously defending our members terms and conditions, now or in the future. “This campaign shows that sustained strike action and unity gets results. Our members should be proud of the role they have played in securing this deal.”

Rail industry not putting its troubles to rest

Ever since the dispute was settled with infrastructure agency Network Rail, there has been only minimal disruption to freight services. Operators in the freight sector have not been directly involved in the dispute, but have been affected by it while NR signalling and safety staff were on strike. Passenger operations run by the governments in Scotland and Wales made settlements early on in the dispute, safeguarding domestic services from the dispute. However, the industry is far from putting its troubles to rest.

The other big union in the industry, the train drivers union ASLEF, has not settled its claims over pay, conditions and security of employment. They have begun a week-long rolling programme of outright strikes. Members are withdrawing their labour at all sixteen appointed passenger train operating companies in England. The ‘open access’ operators Grand Central, Hull Trains and Lumo are not involved. All three serve portions of the East Coast Main Line. The action is staggered, affecting different operators on different days, and comes with an overtime ban as well.

Northern Ireland now drawn into strike action

Now, transport unions in Northern Ireland have pulled out their members for the first time since 2015. The trades union representation in Northern Ireland is under three different affiliations: Unite, GMB and SIPTU (the latter is the  large Dublin based all-Ireland “Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union”). After Friday’s action, which halted all passenger road and rail transport, the unions have claimed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, is the man responsible for provoking the action.

Night bus at railway station
Translink administers all public transport in Northern Ireland, both bus and rail

Coordinated strike ballots were held by the three unions, which returned overwhelming support for industrial action. All three votes were in excess of 90 per cent. The ballots were conducted after workers rejected a pay freeze, which the unions say is the equivalent to an eleven per cent real-terms pay cut, taking inflation into account.

Potent force in Irish industrial relations

The unions have met with Dr Denis McMahon, the permanent secretary of the department for infrastructure in Northern Ireland (effectively the chief advisor to the Government). They made clear their feeling that the primary problem is the austerity budget imposed by secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris. The devolved government in Belfast has not convened for several years due to unresolved political issues, forcing a level of direct rule from London. Heaton-Harris, a former Transport Secretary himself, has his work cut out.

“Like all other public sector workers, those employed by Translink have a right to a pay increase that offers protection from rising prices”, said Niall McNally, regional organiser for SIPTU’s membership in Translink. The union has over 200,000 members across the whole island, and is a potent force in Irish industrial relations. “If further disruption in the lead up to Christmas is to be avoided, the secretary of state will need to reverse his approach”, added McNally. “End the pay freeze policy and remove threats to public transport services in Northern Ireland.”

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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