Are Trade Unions still necessary in modern Ireland?

  • October 31st, 2016
  • Jason O'Sullivan

It’s been a busy period of late for many public sector Unions and their akin staff respective members. From the Dublin bus driver strikes in September, to the recently announced industrial actions by both An Garda Síochána through its staff representatives group and ASTI teacher Union members planned for this November.

Such turbulent times bring to focus the role of Unions in modern Ireland, particularly for those non-members and citizens operating in the private sphere.

There is no doubt that Unions are ingrained into the tapestry of Irish society but they remain a polarising subject, dependent on one’s viewpoint. Some see them as mere instigators or catalysts for public service upheaval through strategic protests and strike actions, while others view them as being essential guardians or advocates of public worker rights and entitlements, through steadfast collective bargaining tactics.

Regardless of one’s viewpoint, Unions continue to stir much debate and consternation amongst the general public at large. As public service unrest is likely to prevail over the coming months, it is perhaps timely to question the role of Unions within Irish society and to query whether such institutions are still necessary or only equipped for a bygone era.

Ireland now boasts multi-faceted legislative protections for all workers, both public and private, emanating from domestic and EU legislation, a luxury ill afforded to workers of the past.

History of Unions

Irish Trade Unions have a rich history and lineage as far back as the eighteenth century, a period when “local societies”, the forbearers of Unions, began to form in both Ireland and Britain to represent various craftsmen, ranging from bricklayers to butchers.

Better organised Unions then naturally started to emerge, for instance the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) was established in 1894 to become the collective voice for organised Irish labour. Slightly later, the much revered James Larkin established the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union which was involved in the Dublin Lock Out of 1913. Around the same period the ITUC established a political arm known as the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILPTUC) under the guidance of the Republican hero, James Connolly, which amicably separated in the 1930’s at a time of deep economic depression in Ireland.

The mid 1940’s saw a split between Irish and British-based Unions, with the Irish-based Unions forming the Congress of Irish Unions up until 1959, when the two Irish Union federations formally reunited becoming the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), as it is still currently known today.

The ICTU is therefore a single trade union body, with 48 individual affiliated trade unions and covers both the Republic of Ireland, where there are an estimated 566,336 members and Northern Ireland, where there is an estimated 211,800 from 2013 figures.

Union membership and participation is much higher in the public sector as one would expect, where over two-thirds of employees are members, in comparison to less than a quarter in the private sector.

The largest Union affiliated to the ICTU is the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), which wields considerable power and influence in its own right. SIPTU is a general Union, with membership in many industrial sectors, public and private. The next largest Unions in the Republic of Ireland are the public services union IMPACT, the retail workers’ union MANDATE, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), and the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU).

Legal Context

From a legal perspective, Unions do not enjoy the level of recognition one might expect for such a powerful force, largely because Irish labour law is essentially based on the individual employee’s contract of employment, regardless of whether that individual employee is a Union member of not. Therefore the relationship is always between the employer and employee, as opposed to being between the employer and the Union.

Despite all Irish employees have a Constitutional right to join a Trade Union, there is no legal obligation on an employer to either recognise or negotiate with that Union, unless previous talks have taken place.

Furthermore, the right to strike is not recognised under Irish law, it is however recognised under EU law, as is the right to not associate with a Union. In the Irish context, strike action by employees is only permissible provided strict conditions are met, such as the holding of a secret ballot to vote for such strike action.

Therefore during periods of trade disputes or collective bargaining, the Unions are viewed under the law as mere advisors or supporters to the individual workers rather than being viewed as the leaders of the collective action. Typically, when large scale negotiations take place between the employer and the employees, such talks are centred on the premise that those employers are concluding agreements with each individual member of staff, despite whether it is a Union, Trade Association or simply a group of employees doing the talking on behalf of the collective.


There is little doubt that the establishment and growth of Unions throughout the last century has considerably bolstered many of the employee rights and entitlements as enjoyed today. Such contributions coupled with Ireland’s EU membership in the 1970s, have culminated in sophisticated legal protections and safeguards enshrined within a plethora of employment legislation.

There is also little doubt that public support for Unions will yet again wane giving the imminent dual strikes scheduled for November. This is an understandable reaction resulting  from the massive disruption such industrial action will cause to the general public given two vital areas of public service will be affected – policing and education.

The Union and Staff Representatives Groups are likely to argue again that such strikes are justified and necessary as to ensure their respective members get fairer pay deals or working arrangements, which may indirectly benefit other workers in time. While employees from different industries, not privy to such Union talks, may feel aggrieved and somewhat undervalued in the context of their own employment, whether that be in the public or private sector.

Under Irish employment law, all workers are equal, whether Union or Non-Union members. In reality however, both types of workers are not treated the same, for threatened strike action and strategic service stoppages have the keen ability to result in favourable deals not available to the majority of Irish employees.

Therefore, while collective bargaining deals continue and threats prevail, the role of Unions will remain, whether or not such influence and power is still a necessary one in modern Ireland.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors

J.O.S Solicitors provides tailored Employment Law and HR Compliance to Business and individuals. If you would like J.O.S Solicitors to assist your business with its HR needs or to simply discuss your options about any employment law or HR compliance issue. Then please contact us



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