Strike ballot threat as Northern Ireland prisons crisis deepens
The prisons crisis escalated last night after the local head of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) announced he wanted to ballot the group’s members over an all-out strike.
POA chairman Finlay Spratt spoke after 190 prison officers at Maghaberry and Magilligan started work late yesterday in a protest over a pay dispute that they claim has been running for more than a year.
The strike ballot call came just a day after Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie called the failure to reach a settlement “shameful”.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Spratt said the mood of prison officers was one of despondency at the way they had been treated.
“The staff are totally frustrated,” the POA chairman added. “I intend to ballot the membership for an all-out strike.
“I hope to get approval to hold a ballot when the executive committee of the Northern Ireland POA meets next Tuesday, with the ballot held a couple of weeks after that.
“It will then be up to our members to tell us what to do, and I believe that if necessary we should go on strike. It is so sad that we have to go to those extremes to make the management sit up and listen.”
Mr Spratt also angrily accused Prison Service management of ‘exploiting members of the POA. “What they’re doing is, they’re playing politics with the lives of prison officers,” he said.
“I think they’re acting in this way because they have the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill behind them.
“They believe that they don’t have to talk to us and they believe that we can’t go on strike because that’s what the law says — and that’s what they’re depending on. That’s why they ignore us.”
Mr Spratt claimed that in 2012 local members of the POA were promised that a 37-hour week would be introduced by 2014 in return for their co-operation with Prison Service reform. “They have refused to give that to us,” he added.
“We have also reduced the running costs of the Northern Ireland Prison Service over the last four years by £52m per year — and this is the thanks that we have got.”
Mr Spratt claimed that pay and conditions for prison officers in Northern Ireland were significantly worse that those offered to their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
“In England, a prison officer working additional hours is paid £22 per hour,” he said. In Northern Ireland, it’s £11. That’s the same work for half the money.”
In a statement issued last night, the Northern Ireland Prison Service said talks had taken place over pay.
A spokesman added: “Some staff took unauthorised action for a short time this morning at Maghaberry, but this has now ended and the prison regime has returned to normal.
“Discussions have been taking place between the Northern Ireland Prison Service, managers and the trade unions on a 2016 pay award for prison grades.
“The (Justice) Minister has met the POA and advised them that she is in discussions with her ministerial colleague, the Finance Minister.”