Northern Ireland fire chief appeals for strike cover to avoid army call-up

Union dismisses ‘desperate tactics’ as chief calls for recognition of region’s ‘unique circumstances’

A fire service chief has been accused of “desperate tactics” after pleading for firefighters in Northern Ireland to respond to high-risk calls during any strikes so that the army are not asked to cover emergencies in the region.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the request showed that the government and managers were “clearly rattled” by a vote last week in favour of strike action.

Fire services in parts of the UK are expected to ask the army to cover for striking firefighters if, as expected, they take action as early as at the end of this month. Any request for troops to go into Northern Ireland would raise serious security concerns. Dissident republicans have in the past said they would target any British troops who returned to the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s interim chief fire officer, Andy Hearn, said: “I am calling for all [FBU] council members to fully appreciate and recognise the unique circumstances here in Northern Ireland, and agree to special arrangements to negate the need for military resources during any period of strike action.

“I strongly believe it is in the interest of all stakeholders, especially at this time in Northern Ireland, to pursue special arrangements for striking firefighters in Northern Ireland. Should agreement not be reached with the Fire Brigades Union executive council next week, a request for military aid to civil authority (MACA) will reluctantly remain a viable option.”

Civil servants in Northern Ireland raised the possibility of seeking cover from the armed forces in December and January as they discussed how to respond to an expected ballot in favour of a strike in the region.

The region’s fire service has asked the union on several occasions to promise emergency cover, but the union is minded not to do so.

Each region can negotiate a separate settlement with the union. It is understood that the union has not received a formal increased pay offer from Hearn or his colleagues.

The FBU’s chief executive, Matt Wrack, said: “This intervention shows how disastrously government ministers and fire service employers have handled the pay claim from firefighters. They are clearly rattled after the 94% vote in favour of strikes by firefighters in Northern Ireland as well as the 88% vote for action in England, Scotland and Wales.

“Mr Hearn is well aware that the answer is for fire service employers, including the Northern Ireland fire and rescue service, to urgently make a new offer to significantly increase the pay of all firefighters across the UK.”


Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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