Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary, ICTU

Peter Bunting is the Assistant General Secretary for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with responsibility for co-ordinating and developing the Trade Union Movement in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) of ICTU is the representative body for 34 trade unions with approximately 215,000 members across Northern Ireland.

Peter has been involved in the following organisations: The Board of Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company; The Management Committee of Counteract and it successor, Trademark; The Management Committee of Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre; Belfast City Council Good Relations Committee; Economic Development Forum; and NI Water.

A native of Belfast, Peter has been an active trade unionist since 1972. Prior to his appointment to Congress Peter served as General Secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union in the Republic of Ireland. He holds a BA (Hons) from the Faculty of Business, Economic and Social Science, Trinity College, Dublin.

For more information on the work of the Northern Ireland Committee Irish Congress of Trade Unions go to


Peter Bunting Speech – ‘Working life after Brexit’

One of the biggest single political decisions for the UK in living memory was taken on 23 June, when the people voted in the referendum on EU membership.

Our side lost the referendum. We won it here in Northern Ireland. We won it in Scotland and we won it in London. But we lost it everywhere else. We even lost it, and by huge margins, in places like south Wales and the North-East of England which get as much assistance and help from Europe as we have done here. That is a circle that will have to be squared, and will require more work than a few judicial reviews and online petitions.

Those of us who remain opposed to this land and our people leaving the EU will have to fight this politically, and our starting point ought to be that the viewpoint we have as pro-europeans was not extinguished by a narrow margin on 23 June.

I assert that those of us who opposed leaving the EU are perfectly entitled to retain that view. It is not showing contempt for the will of the majority to hold onto an opinion.

Nor is it ‘elitist’ to highlight that the ‘Leave’ campaign was based on a series of re-asserted untruths and unsubtle racism. There was nothing ‘Dog-Whistle’ about UKIP’s poster, nor was there anything isolated in its deliberate conflation of Syrian refugees, the ISIS fanatics they are fleeing, the ‘home-grown’ terrorism of Paris and Brussels and distortions about free movement of EU citizens.

The ‘elitist’ gibe is a bit rich when it comes from some people who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, which was endorsed in two referendums (and every subsequent election), and sought to undermine it on the streets as well as in Stormont. Indeed, there are some MLAs and Stormont ministers who insist to this day that they have never accepted the referendums of 1998. It is also worth noting that those who opposed the Agreement in 1998 found themselves in exactly the same company in 2016, including those on the far left and the far right.

You know what? Good for them; those are the sort of pluralist opinions one is supposed to hear in a democracy. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The trade unions are approaching the new reality with the aim of maintaining as many of the old facts as possible. The unions were united, with a couple of exceptions, and it seems that our campaigning may have had some impact on union members, although not enough on those workers not in trade unions.

There were solid reasons for working people voting to ‘Remain’. Our fears of Brexit and our aspiration for a social Europe remain the same. After the referendum, the immediate concerns for the trade unions centre on:

· Protection of all employment rights and future rights; ensuring that the NI Assembly uses its devolved power to achieve this.

· Trade – negotiating and regulating customs and tariffs. The first of the border issues, followed by…

· Work – Republic of Ireland citizens working in Northern Ireland. What will happen to EU citizens working in NI? What will happen to NI citizens working in the RoI or other EU countries?

· Travel – Freedom of movement between NI and the Republic for Irish and British citizens. How will the estimated 18,000 people who cross the border each day to go to work be affected?

What about Freedom of movement for EU citizens? Will we have soft border control or hard border control? Soft would mean no passport control on NI/RoI border, but would be activated at ports and airports through passport control. However, the First Minister says that her opposition to checkpoints between NI and the ‘mainland’ is shared by Theresa May. Now what?

The whole question of passports and citizenship: Under the Good Friday Agreement, everyone born in NI is entitled to Irish citizenship, which means EU citizenship. Does that means that full

EU rights to travel and reciprocal healthcare and university education and retirement on the Costa Blanca are available to someone in Belfast who never sets foot across the border? Even if the ‘Hard Brexit’ crowd around Liam Fox and Boris Johnson get their way and end Freedom of Movement?

There are more questions which we are very far from answering, and will require more thought than chanting like a mantra: “Brexit means Brexit”.

Take the European Court of Human Rights, which is imperative to retain as it is crucial to the Good Friday Agreement, despite being outwith the competence of the EU.

What, though, of the EU Court of Justice, and its rulings on workers’ rights and taxation? The ECJ has made very important rulings on workers’ rights since the advent of the social chapter, and its Azores ruling on Corporation Tax has thus far saved us from making that bad choice. Now that NI is going to be ‘liberated’ from the Court and its notions of fairness and equal playing fields, it is even more pointless in cutting Corporation Tax to 12.5% and try and appeal to multi-nationals because the rivals down the road will still have access to the Single Market.

Incidentially, isn’t it revealing that the only people who feel brave enough to take on US mega-corporations such as Apple, Microsoft and McDonalds are not sovereign nation-states and elected parliaments, but EU Commissioners?

Isn’t it revealing that the largely toothless European Parliament has done more to inform citizens about TTIP and CETA than the parties, politicians and newspapers which endlessly drone on about ‘taking back control’?

The dreams of our foes as well as our friends lie in ruins after the referendum. Cutting corporation Tax is a dead letter. TTIP is sunk.

George Osborne’s long-term economic plan – remember that Tory manifesto commitment? – is going the same way.

Fiscal targets set by the previous Westminster Government have now been abandoned by the new UK Chancellor in favour of a renewed focus on investment. It is crucial that the NI Assembly lobbies UK Government to ensure that the costs to Northern Ireland of abandoning the EU are fully reflected in any new fiscal settlement.

EU Funding – civil society, business and the unions, farmers and the community sector, must lobby vigorously to ensure that the recipients continue to receive the same rates of funding from the UK Government, lest that oft-asserted promise go the way of the £350 million being shovelled into the NHS every week.

As trade unions, however, our focus is the impact upon our members’ job security, especially those whose jobs are funded or part-funded by EU programmes, or those in the private sector exposed to the economic disruption post-referendum. These jobs are scattered across the public, private and third sectors, and thus are difficult to quantify. Some are fully funded posts, some are projects with limited life-spans, some are partially funded and others depend upon specific markets for their goods and services.

What all of those workers have are rights which are no longer as well protected as they used to be.

You have heard them, the Free-Market fundamentalists and crony capitalists such as Priti Patel and Liam Fox blaming the UK’s poor productivity on ‘bad attitudes’ to work in the UK – which they contrast with shiny Asian autocracies such as Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world,” they have written. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”

Their solution: scrap the working time directive.

Leaving the EU will undoubtedly affect the quantity of jobs we have, but will also afflict our quality of work, the terms and conditions which trade unions are tasked with defending and improving.

For the past half-century, EU law has provided the floor that our trade union collective agreements have built upon.

This includes protection like paid holidays, family friendly rights, consultation on redundancies, and health and safety laws.

Thanks to EU law, full-time workers are entitled to at least 20 days a year in paid holidays.

There are Protections for Agency Workers such as Part-Time workers.

There are Protections against discrimination on age, sexuality, gender, race.

All workers benefit from these laws, particularly in areas of working time and safety.

Trade unions benefit from European law in defending our right to organise and take legal cases on behalf of members.

There are rights for workers to be consulted about major changes that will change people’s jobs or result in redundancies.

Women have EU protections to stop them getting the sack for simply becoming pregnant.

In addition to paid maternity leave, parents also have the right to take off some unpaid leave to take care of their children. This is important for parents with children who have a disability.

The same EU law also gives parents time off for urgent family reasons, like a sick child.

Everybody here, in this room, has the wonderful right to travel, work and retire in any EU country, a freedom enjoyed by thousands of Northern-Irish born workers.

And these are truly democratic freedoms, for everyone to enjoy, not just the rich. Indeed, this very equality for all EU citizens seems to be at the core of the anti-European mindset, the sour begrudgery and status anxiety that feels offended when someone else has the same amount of freedom.

That is why they hate the universalist ethos of the NHS and the BBC, and despise the slim protections for the minorities they look down upon. Once they nail the EU, it will be the European Convention on Human Rights, which annoys them even more than the Working Time Directive. And they really, really hate that!

Theresa May has stated often enough that she is determined to scrap the ECHR, despite it being written by British lawyers after the War and the Holocaust, despite it having nothing to do with the EU and despite it being written into and clearly referenced in the Good Friday Agreement.

Theresa May and her party have exploited the refugee crisis in a manner which shames us all for breathing the same toxic air as their fetid fantasies. She was at it again this week, at the United Nations as it discussed the plight of millions fleeing persecution and poverty. Has the woman no shame?

We have already seen that the debate become focused on immigration and migrant workers. The result of that rigged debate is now defining the outcome of exit negotiations months before they even start.

Make no mistake, Brexit will mean migration will be centre stage for years while exit negotiations are under way, and that only suits the right end of the political spectrum..

It will leave millions – of Britons abroad and of EU citizens here – uncertain about their future.

We have all heard migrant workers described as an ‘explosion of cheap labour’ who are undercutting wages.

Trade unions oppose that sort of language. We know it opens up the risks of division. We know, from bitter experience, it plays into the hands of the right and of the racists.

There is an economic recession. It was sparked by the banks – not by migrants.

Housing shortages – are caused by the failures of the market – not by migrants.

Stretched public services are caused by the austerity policies of the Tory government – not by migrants.

Low wages are caused by economic recessions and rip off bosses – not by migrants.

Solidarity not surrender is the answer that I hope this debate will adopt.

That is the shared message from our the ETUC, speaking for 60 million trade union members across the EU, the shared message of our sister confederations in Great Britain, the TUC, the STUC and that Wales TUC.

And it is the message to Irish trade unionists agreed at the July meeting of the ICTU Executive Council, stating:

“The most striking aspect of the response of Europe’s political leaders to the British referendum result is how they failed to get the message.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the result of the referendum swung on working class voters suffering years of austerity and deregulated labour markets. These conditions originated in decisions taken at

Westminster but Europe got the blame. The strategy of precarious work favoured by business and those on the centre right simply doesn’t work; sooner or later the politics catches up with the economics.

“The European Trade Union Confederation proposes a policy of investment in sustainable growth which would raise skills and productivity. Congress supports this.

We also support the proposal by President Juncker to build a Pillar of European Social rights.

We in the northern part of this island wish to have the same for workers in this jurisdiction. We will work with you and other people of good will to take as our starting point: What we have we hold – then let us get something better!

Thanks for listening…