Cross-Community Labour Councillor for Enniskillen Donal O’Cofaigh has written to the Chief Officer of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to obtain a date when a full-time fire station will return to the county.
“I have written to NI Fire and Rescue Chief Officer Michael Graham to ask him when the full time complement will return to Enniskillen Fire Station.
“At the commencement of the COVID-19 lockdown, the full-time team based in Enniskillen was moved to Omagh. From firefighters themselves I understood this to be a short-term measure related to contingency planning around the pandemic. We recognised that there was relatively less risk on being dependent on part-time firefighters when most on-call firefighters were already at home but nonetheless it has been an issue that I’ve been closely monitoring.
It was always unavoidable that mistakes would be made during the handling of this pandemic. No public health threat on this scale has existed in any developed economy for many decades – and given that modern economies are integrated and interdependent (networked) on a scale previously unimaginable – the economic and social impact of a global pandemic were always going to pose severe difficulties. These unavoidable problems were always going to be exacerbated by the fact that governments globally are almost universally driven by the needs to facilitate the interests and the continued profits of the parasitic capitalist class – leaving working-class interests and safety a very low priority. But these considerations notwithstanding, it is also undeniable that there has been a range of governmental responses globally – leading to a varying severity of outcomes for workers in different countries and regions.
The Covid-19 pandemic came on the back of a decade of biting austerity cuts to public health and social care services in Northern Ireland. It also occurred against a backdrop where social care for vulnerable and the elderly was highly fragmented with the majority of residents in care homes being run by private companies ‘the independent sector’. Stormont parties on all sides had normalised the profit motive in the provision of care and indeed pump-primed the growth of the sector through public funding tied to the growing numbers of residents in private care homes. Nonetheless care homes operators often felt the need to ‘top up’ their public sector revenues through the imposition of hefty additional charges levelled on residents or their families.
The situation in care homes was always going to a major difficulty should a pandemic strike.
Northern Ireland’s government was suspended between 2017 and 2020 after the sectarian parties refused to reach a power-sharing agreement following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Now a strike wave has forced them and the bosses to give ground.
The Socialist spoke to public sector union Nipsa’s deputy general secretary Carmel Gates (in a personal capacity) about the struggles.
Were the private sector strikes in 2019 a watershed for workers’ struggle?
Yes. There’s been a significant change in Northern Ireland. We’ve gone from a period of having the least number of days lost in strikes to potentially now moving into a peak that we haven’t seen in decades.
And I think it was the Harland and Wolff shipyard occupation victory that kick-started that. The shipyard was facing closure. It’s a historic landmark. Not just on the landscape, with the two very prominent cranes, Samson and Goliath – it has also been one of the most important employers.
The proud industrial heritage within Belfast and Northern Ireland – much of this has gone. Symbolically the action taken by shipyard workers has had an impact. People saw those workers standing up and saving industry, saving something that is monumental.
And it has to some degree changed the landscape – the confidence that workers now feel. Quickly after Harland and Wolff, Wrightbus – a factory that makes buses – was facing closure. And again, the workers took to the outside of the factory and made their presence felt.
The recent announcement that Enniskillen and Omagh are to have their fire cover cut to part-time in a matter of weeks should be a cause of grave concern to all of us.
These cuts could lead to long delays in responding to fires and other emergencies, potentially with tragic consequences. Fire service management say that the reduction in cover in Enniskillen and Omagh will only be temporary, but our experience across the public service is that when cuts are made, they are rarely reversed in this age of austerity.
The fire service faces a £3.2 million shortfall for this financial year. The budget allocated by the Department of Health simply has not reflected the rising demand on the service. Safety inspections of public buildings are being skipped just to plug the gaps. The reduction in fire cover across Northern Ireland will put lives at risk and, again, rural communities will be hit hardest.
I am pleased that the Fire Brigades Union has come out strongly against these cuts, which will also put their members at increased risk. I will seek to work alongside the FBU to oppose this reduction in cover and fight for the necessary funding – relatively a pittance – to be put in place so a safe service can be maintained for people in the Fermanagh & Omagh area and further afield. I intend to put a motion on the issue to the September meeting of the council.