An eight-year dispute over privatisation at a Northern Ireland trust has ended with 500 ancillary workers being taken back 'in-house.'

The dispute at Down Lisburn health and social services trust ended on Monday when an in-house team took over a support services contract for domestic, portering, telephone and catering services.

It began in 1990, when a trust predecessor organisation put domestic services at Lisburn health centre out to contract.

It intensified in 1994-95, when the trust started an expanded market test, covering domestic services in five hospitals and 53 other units.

Despite strike and court action by Unison, the contract was awarded to Compass.

The union claims the company terminated members' contracts and imposed new terms, leading to a bitter two-week strike.

It led Unison to buy shares in the company, lobby its annual general meeting, and lobby trust board meetings. Compass restored the original terms and conditions in 1997 and did not bid for the contract when it ended in October last year. In December, the contract was won by the trust team.

Unison deputy regional secretary Patricia McKeown said she was 'tired but delighted' after the strenuous campaign, which was supported by all political parties 'at a time when they were not talking to each other'.

The union is now planning an approach to Sperrin Lakeland Health and Social Care trust, asking it to bring workers back in-house when a similar contract expires in 18 months' time.

Down Lisburn trust human resources director Alan Best said the board was pleased when the in-house scheme was successful in bidding for the contract.

But he distanced himself from the dispute, which he said was conducted by 'employees of a private company'.

Ms McKeown said the privatisation of support services had been kept to a minimum in the health service in Northern Ireland and 'where it has happened it has been seen as a failed experiment'.

All trusts in Northern Ireland were instructed by the NHS Management Executive to proceed with market testing last year.

But the dispute led Unison to receive a commitment from Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam that equality and fair treatment would be considered.