Prisons Minister Paul Goggins is today due to hold crisis talks with prison staff in a bid to avert illegal strike action which could bring chaos to Ulster’s jails, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
More than 70% of union members have voted to strike as a dispute with management over their working terms and conditions intensifies.
The crunch talks with Mr Goggins are an attempt to avert the looming crisis which comes at a time when prison chiefs have been forced to consider transferring some remand prisoners out of the high security Maghaberry Prison to Magilligan Prison due to “extensive” overcrowding.
Union members have already started industrial action by withdrawing goodwill in protest against what they say is an “unreasonable” sick leave policy and “too severe” punishment procedures.
Finlay Spratt of the Prison Officers Association, the union that represents prison staff, said that 71.3% of union members who voted agreed to the extension of the withdrawal of goodwill to include strike action.
He said the action was temporarily put on hold as a “gesture of goodwill” following talks with Minister Goggins last week.
The minister is due to meet with union members again this evening in a bid to reach a breakthrough in the dispute.
“Yes, we are due to meet again with Mr Goggins this evening to see if there can be some sort of a resolution and we will take it from there,” said Mr Spratt.
“We are not allowed to take strike action, but this law is unjust as it stops workers making a protest. The fact that so many have voted yes to the extension of the withdrawal of goodwill to including strike action makes it clear what they think of NIPS management.
“We do not want to go on strike, it is the last thing we want to do because it is unlawful, but we have to make a stand.”
The long-running dispute relates to disagreement over the Prison Service’s code of conduct and discipline, and the sick absence procedures.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said management has “engaged diligently” with the Prison Officers Association to find a resolution to this dispute.
He added: “We have narrowed down the issues into two specific areas in relation to the code of conduct and discipline and the sick absence procedures.
“We have involved the Labour Relations Agency to try to get an independent input into the dispute and we remain committed to resolving this issue either through direct engagement with the POA or through third party negotiation.”
The Belfast Telegraph has also learned that prison bosses have been forced to consider transferring some remand inmates from Maghaberry to the less secure prison at Magilligan to help reduce the “high number” of prisoners.
Concern was raised during a recent board meeting over “extensive doubling-up” in the jail, which was recently dubbed one of the worst in the UK by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate
The Prison Service said: “Exploratory discussions are taking place to look at the implications of transferring some remand prisoners to Magilligan Prison to help ease overcrowding problems in Maghaberry Prison.
“The issue was discussed at the NIPS Management Board meeting in May when the Director Robin Masefield asked the management at the two prisons to take it forward.”
A prison source said that because of problems with overcrowding it is one of the worst possible times for staff to go on strike.
“If officers do go out on strike it could cause complete chaos in a prison estate that is severely overcrowded.
“It is difficult enough to deal with such high numbers of prisoners and all the issues that goes with that.
“I don’t know how management will cope if the staff walk out,” the source said.