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Nispa's Bumper Graham: 'There's plenty of money in the UK, it's about time it came here'


Personal crusade: Bumper Graham is determined to fight the latest round of cuts

Personal crusade: Bumper Graham is determined to fight the latest round of cuts

Personal crusade: Bumper Graham is determined to fight the latest round of cuts

Personal crusade: Bumper Graham is determined to fight the latest round of cuts

Personal crusade: Bumper Graham is determined to fight the latest round of cuts

Q: You have indicated that massive strike action could follow the cuts announced last week. This could make you one of the most unpopular men in Northern Ireland. How do you feel about that?

A: The financial chaos has been brought about first of all by the chancellor George Osborne and second of all by the Northern Ireland Executive. What we are trying to do is first of all protect our members' interests, but secondly, and as importantly, to protect the vital public services that everyone depends on.

Q: You have threatened strike action which hasn't gone down well.

A: I wouldn't say that, it went down very well on the Nolan Show last week. There was plenty of applause when it was mentioned, and while I didn't personally follow the Twitter stuff after, some of my colleagues did and they said there was a significant amount of support for the line that was being adopted.

Q: I would put to you most people don't want to see strikes.

A: Well all the early indications we have from our Nipsa members and other trade unions is that the line in the sand has been reached and there is a realisation that we have to take action to protect our members' jobs, and to act in the best interests in the people of Northern Ireland, because clearly the Northern Ireland Executive is failing to do so.

Q: Are you and the trade unions living in the real world? Think about the salaries in the public sector compared to the private sector.

A: The salaries in the public sector in Northern Ireland are no different to the salaries anywhere else in the UK in the public sector and in many cases are well below comparable jobs in the private sector. It's regrettable that in the private sector in Northern Ireland they generally pay low wages, and that Northern Ireland is marketed by government as a low wage economy.

Q: Surely our public sector in Northern Ireland is far too big?

A: The size of our public services is proportionate to the size of social need in Northern Ireland. The fact is our private sector is too small, but you don't rebalance that by cutting public sector jobs or transferring work into the private sector.

Q: Are trade unions still relevant in the 21st century?

A: Our membership is holding up very well, we are still the biggest civic society organisation in Northern Ireland. We represent over 215,000 workers.

Q: How many of them want to strike?

A: We will see when we go out and consult and ballot with our members, but we are confident that people are determined to fight for their jobs and fight to protect public services.

Q: Do you not think more of these workers will be more worried about what they will do in terms of last minute childcare arrangements if teachers walk out of schools, or whether they can afford to strike themselves?

A: Public servants are also members of society, and what is at stake here is the future of society. If we don't take industrial action, then we will see no libraries, only emergency operations in our health services, far fewer places in our colleges and universities and much bigger classroom sizes.

Q: There is only a finite amount of money. Realistically are cuts avoidable?

A: The money position is down to the incompetence of successive Northern Ireland Executives in getting a fair settlement for Northern Ireland. There is plenty of money in the UK, and in fact George Osborne is every week on the media and right wing press telling us how well he has turned the economy around, so it is about time some of that money came to Northern Ireland.

Q: Don't we already get more proportionately thanks to the Barnett Formula? We have been told if it was recalculated now, we would receive less money.

A: The whole purpose of the Barnett Formula is to provide fair equalisation. However, whilst the Barnett Formula is designed to deal with ongoing annual expenditure, ever since the Good Friday Agreement the only people that have benefited from the peace process in economic terms is the British Treasury, and what we should have had was a proper financial settlement to provide for, firstly massive necessary reinvestment in our infrastructure which has been neglected for almost four decades, and also an annual allocation of money to deal with social cohesion in order to take us out from Troubles into a normal society.

Q: Do you appreciate why those in the private sector often don't have much sympathy for those in the public sector? Those in the private sector have not had a pay rise for years either.

A: Well, we don't consider it an issue between public and private. This false argument is one that has been brought about by you and your colleagues in the media. What I would say is we are very conscious that if you lose 6,000 jobs as this budget would do, it is not just the public servants who will be affected, but those who own local shops, entertainment facilities, bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels. They will feel a massive impact from the loss of these jobs.

Q: News like 1 in 10 civil servants in Northern Ireland are off sick for three months a year doesn't help.

A: Well again, often misquoted and misconstrued by the press, and the figures have been coming down. We have been working with employers to try and address some of the problems, but an awful lot of the problems are created by pressure and stress and that will get worse if these cuts are forced through.

Q: As a Nipsa representative you are paid by the union and have pension arrangements in place?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me what your salary is?

A: Nipsa as a union follows for its employees broadly civil service terms and conditions, and our pension scheme is very similar to the civil service scheme, and our pay levels are based on appropriate relevant equivalent civil service grades. So we, as employees of the union, then share the pay terms and conditions of our membership.

Q: So what is your grade in civil service terms?

A: I would be a middle management grade in the civil service.

Q: So can you tell me what your salary is?

A: My salary is published in our annual report and accounts to our members.

Q: So I can look it up in the annual report?

A: You could see the salary range.

Q: But you won't say what is it?

A: No, I don't think it is relevant. Put it like this, it is not like anywhere near senior management or senior people in the private sector.

Q: You have been a union representative for over 20 years now?

A: More. I have been a full time official of the union since March 1982.

Q: Where did you work before that?

A: Well, I was on secondment for a few years before that to the union. Prior to that I was a civil servant.

QWhat got you involved with union activity?

A: I had a general interest in labour politics and labour history and a couple of relatives who were active. My first week in the civil service I was approached by the local branch to become active.

Q: Were you involved in industrial action back then?

A: Oh yes, I was involved in actions since the mid 1970s, from when I started work in the civil service from 1974 to 1982. There were issues in and around Labour government in the 70s and the early 80s as well. I think Nipsa's first major strike was in 1981 on civil service pay.

Q: Was it particularly challenging working for a union during the Troubles, with so much else going on?

A: There were major issues at times, threats made against members of the union that I was representing, from various paramilitary organisations, particularly in social security offices. Clearly that had some potential implications for the union as well.

Q: And that continues on with the Belfast City Council workers feeling intimidated over the flags place at the depot?

A: Yes, these things continue on. It's not my area any more, but I was contacted by someone the other day about a threat in Carrickfergus or Larne. In the main the threat has gone away. However, there are still incidents and threats made against public servants.

Q: So you think the reputation of civil servants having a cushy life is unfair?

A: Yes it is. Nipsa isn't just civil service, we are a public service union, we represent workers in the dole offices, planners, health service, social workers, clerical staff, people in education such as classroom assistants, people in housing and local government. We cover virtually the full range of public services, that's why this budget is such a huge danger, every facet of our members' areas of work are going to be severely damaged. The only department that gets any significant increase is DETI, getting a 5.3% increase, allegedly for job creation, but yet the budget itself will destroy 6,000 jobs. It's a nonsense to give DETI money on the one hand to create jobs when the Executive is destroying jobs. What needs fixing is the totality of the amount of money available to Northern Ireland.

Q: First Minister Peter Robinson did challenge anyone not happy with the amount of money for Northern Ireland to go to Westminster themselves and negotiate more money. Will you do that?

A: We have always argued that whether it be Direct Rule administrations or devolved administrations, there is a need for proper funding for Northern Ireland. But Peter Robinson should remember what his job is. He is the First Minister for Northern Ireland. His obligation is to the people of Northern Ireland, not to Cameron and Osborne and he is mis-serving the people of Northern Ireland if he is not arguing the case for us.

Q: He is arguing that he has argued the case for us.

A: Well then he is a failure.

Q: Is Northern Ireland better served by Direct Rule?

A: All of the trade unions campaigned very hard at the time of the Good Friday Agreement referendum in support of it, and we want to be see strong, effective devolution, but in order to make it work on an ongoing basis and to bring us out from where we were, there is a need for additional funding. There is a projection of a 13% cut up until 2019. If that occurs then our public services will be obliterated.

Q: Would we be better off in a united Ireland?

A: Nipsa is politically neutral, but you only have to look not just at what is happening in the UK, but what happened in the Republic in terms of the collapse of the economy there and how again in the Republic the public service workers bore the brunt of the Troika, forcing disastrous economic policies on the Irish government.

Q: The protests against paying for water have been huge in the Republic, would we see something similar if they tried to bring in water rates here?

A: I was involved as the Nipsa official during the attempt to privatise and introduce water rates, throughout Northern Ireland at that time. There was massive opposition. It has been mentioned in the Assembly, if that were to come back on the agenda, just as in the Republic, there would be an equally large and vociferous campaign of opposition. Water rates would be the one thing that every household would be faced with.

Q: Are you from Belfast?

A: Yes, originally from Sandy Row. I went to school in Finaghy and then I went to Wallace in Lisburn. I am sure they'll just love to see that!

Q: Did you ever have any other career ambitions as a boy?

A: I wanted to be a radio officer in the Merchant Navy. I was accepted but I had to decline the offer because my mum wasn't well so I ended up staying in Belfast.

Q: What are you passionate about outside work?

A: Take a look around the office, what do you think?

Q: Mmm, I wonder could it be exotic animals?

A: I am massively into wildlife, particularly the African elephant. I have always had an interest in wildlife and for many years have been sponsoring an elephant orphanage in Kenya. In the last 14/15 years I have done a fair amount of safari visits to southern Africa and done some game ranger training, and as well over the last four or five years I have been doing some volunteer research, particularly into elephants.

Q: Wow! What is it about elephants?

A: I just think they are amazing creatures. I have spent hours walking beside elephants, I have spent hours sitting with elephants beside me. It's just amazing.

Q: It must be upsetting when you see them abused for their tusks?

A: There are massive problems not just with elephants, but rhinos and even lions with poaching going on, mainly for the Asian market who have this nonsense idea that there are medicinal purposes in it.

In the case of rhinos, some of the middle eastern states use the rhino horn as the handle of a dagger whenever a male son comes of age. So I am pretty determined to do what I can to stop poaching and support elephants in particular, but also rhinos and lions and other endangered species.

Q: Where did the name Bumper come from?

A: It runs in the family. My dad had it and when I joined the civil service, someone in the first place I worked knew my dad, put two and two together, and it has been carried on every since.

Q: Did your dad work for the civil service too?

A: No, I am the only family connection to it. He was a lemonade man. My mum didn't work because she was ill most of her life.

Q: That must have made you grow up quickly, especially as the oldest child?

A: Yeah, it wasn't easy, but that's the way life is. I had two brothers, I'm the oldest. I didn't consider it anything out of the norm or unusual.

Belfast Telegraph