Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Bruising encounter which left Farry on the ropes

Stephen Nolan
Stephen Nolan

By Malachi O'Doherty

Stephen Nolan was at his lethal best yesterday morning in a head to head wrangle with former Employment Minister Stephen Farry.

And Farry at least held his nerve and took the barrage of questions and allegations without crumbling.

The story was that employees who customarily work overtime have been given the legal right to claim holiday pay based on that overtime.

And that has come as a shock to many. Last week the PSNI found itself faced with a likely £40m bill to top up holiday pay going back 20 years, often for people who no longer work for them.

In Great Britain, the avalanche of claims that was anticipated was held back by a law capping claims at two years. Stephen Farry had decided against such a cap in Northern Ireland. Nolan had been claiming that the possible cost of this might be greater even than that of the RHI scandal.

"How much is it going to cost the health service?" asked Nolan at one point; a valid concern but hardly one anyone could be expected to put a figure to.

Farry had his defence in place but it didn't impress Nolan.

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He said that he had made a clear decision not to cap the payments.

He pointed out that in GB the cap had actually produced a rush of claims getting in before the cap took effect.

Northern Ireland had been spared that.

Farry said: "You're making the assumption that the cap was effective. I am not sure on what basis you are making that assumption."

Then Nolan took another tack.

Had Farry not, in keeping silent about the right of workers to claim holiday pay for overtime, denied them the opportunity to access money which they were entitled to.

In the end he painted a picture of the decent hard working people of Northern Ireland who should have been told that they could get all this money - money that at an earlier stage in the interview was talked of as a calamitous bill?

Farry said Nolan was blaming him for not going beyond the brief of his job. Everybody with Human Resources responsibilities knew that the courts had changed the reading of the law on holiday pay. Still, Farry should have been talking to the Department of Finance.

But that was not how the Executive worked.

He called it a "transactional clearing house", not a forum in which ideas were discussed.

And Nolan then hounded Farry for his own failure to help build a more congenial and co-operative Executive. Don't we all wish he could have done but the image that comes to mind of Stephen Farry whipping Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness into line has a unique implausibility to it.

It was a fierce drubbing of the former minister and 'stay in the car' listening. But Nolan had tools to deploy that Farry couldn't match.

"This is just noise," he said at one point when Farry was trying to explain the different responsibilities of ministers. Nolan has an audience that thinks it is perfectly reasonable to expect one minister to knock on another's door and ask if he's got his head round the holiday pay law.

But Farry retained his confidence that he had done what he could. "But you won't say if people should get every penny of their money," said Nolan.

And why should he when the prospect was still open for companies to negotiate settlements with the unions, as some he couldn't name already had?

In the end just surviving seemed a huge achievement for Farry to get through an hour of this without slamming down the phone.

And then we had the bizarre conclusion in which Nolan thanked Farry for giving him the interview and not boycotting his programme or seeking to damage him and Farry assuring him that he never would.

It was almost like two boxers hugging at the end of a fight.

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