Efforts intensify to restore water
Efforts have intensified to return water supply to customers in Northern Ireland affected by a workforce dispute after unions suspended their industrial action.
The work-to-rule protest was called off after bosses at Government-owned supply company Northern Ireland Water tabled fresh proposals to resolve a bitter pensions row.
Out-of-hours repair services had not been carried out as normal as the result of the action by staff over planned changes to their pension scheme, leaving thousands of homes cut off from water supplies.
Representative from the Water Group of Trade Unions (WGTU) said the offer from management represented "significant progress" and, as a result, the work-to-rule would be suspended pending a ballot of members.
Around 1,250 customers remained without water today but earlier in the week more than 9,000 lost supply.
Counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry in the west of Northern Ireland were the areas worst affected by the problems, with customers having to collect water from temporary tanks, and some even being forced to boil snow.
Nipsa, Unite and GMB unions are members of the WGTU and more than half of NI Water's 1,260 workforce were engaged in the industrial action.
Unite industrial officer Joanne McWilliams said: " Shop stewards have agreed that the industrial action can be suspended to allow a consultation with members before conducting a ballot."
She said it would not be appropriate to share details of the offer until the ballot had been conducted.
"The immediate focus of our members today is to work to support NI Water in restoring services to customers across Northern Ireland, particularly in the West," she said.
The dispute centred on NI Water's bid to roll out public sector pension reforms that have already been implemented in other state organisations in the region.
Staff resisted the moves, claiming their monthly pension contributions were set to soar.
NI Water chief executive Sara Venning welcomed the suspension.
"This is welcome news and my continued focus is now on working with our staff to restore services to all our customers," she said.
Stormont's Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, who has ultimate responsibility for the arms-length company, said: "This is positive news for the public, especially those in the west who have experienced significant disruption to their water supply.
"The unions will now have to ballot their members and NI Water will work on the business cases to secure the relevant approvals."
The minister thanked the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast which had mediated to resolve the five-week dispute.
NI Water said supply has been restored to more than 800 customers through the day, with 420 still without water this afternoon.
The properties still affected are in the west Tyrone area.