It is hoped that all properties in the Province will have water supplies restored on Thursday after industrial action by NI Water workers was called off.
On Wednesday union representatives suspended the work-to-rule regime which staff have been sticking to since December 22, after talks resulted in a provisional agreement.
However, NI Water would not reveal details of exactly what this new bargain with their workers will involve, and questions were asked about what the ramifications will be for the public sector at large.
As of last night, there the vast bulk of services had been restored.
Whilst several thousand properties were still without running water at around 11am on Tuesday, by 7pm last night only around 300 homes remained cut off, and the number was falling.
A spokesman for NI Water said he was hopeful the remainder will be up-and-running this morning, although he added that while all water works are now functioning, it may take time for pressure to build up – especially on higher ground.
Representatives from the Water Group of Trade Unions (WGTU, made up of the GMB, Unite and Nipsa) said the offer from management represented “significant progress”.
However, although unions are recommending the deal, the workforce itself will still have to approve it before the threat of further industrial action disappears.
This could take up to two weeks.
The dispute had centred on changes to workers’ pensions, with NI Water aiming to cut its contributions, and to increase the share that workers themselves pay into their retirement pots.
Staff kept rigidly to the letter of their contracts during the industrial action, meaning that they were refusing to do any overtime work.
Although union officials were also keeping tight-lipped about the details of their newly-minted deal, it is thought that it could involve some kind of increase to staff pay (which stands at an average of around £21,000 per annum for most of the staff involved in the industrial action, according to GMB official Alan Perry).
However, public sector pay rises have been capped at one per cent.
DUP South Antrim MLA Trevor Clarke, chairman of Stormont’s regional development committee, issued a statement saying: “There must be a proper scrutiny of how problems were allowed to deepen until we arrived at a situation with thousands of homes without water.
“Further scrutiny of NI Water and issues such as the lack of shift patterns which result in a very heavy reliance on overtime must also be looked at.
“Those issues will be for a later date, however, as the immediate priority is ensuring that people can turn on their taps with an expectation of running water.”
Independent unionist John McCallister (South Down) said that he tends not to favour industrial action, adding that those who suffer most are usually totally uninvolved in the dispute at hand.
A member of Stormont’s finance committee, he also said that with an aging population in the Province, he had backed changes to public sector pensions.
Speaking of the deal last night, told the News Letter: “It certainly could well open up the flood gates for other claims and other disputes.
“There’s no reason why if one gets it, others won’t look for it... Put yourself in anybody else’s shoes, and say: ‘Right, they got a good deal, why aren’t we getting this in other parts of the public sector?’”
Meanwhile, UKIP’s David McNarry (Strangford) said: “Should the unions have won a pay increase from NI Water, paid for by taxpayers’ money, does this settlement have any ramifications for the hundreds of public sector workers who have already settled their new pension agreements?
“Will this settlement have any impact on the redundancy payments including pensions for the 20,000 workers about to lose their jobs?”
NI Water chief executive Sara Venning said the suspension of the dispute was “welcome news”, whilst regional development minister Danny Kennedy (who has ultimate responsibility for NI Water), said it will be hailed “especially those in the west who have experienced significant disruption to their water supply.”
The minister thanked the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast which had mediated to resolve the dispute.