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Thousands of public sector workers will go on strike in Northern Ireland today PA
THE MORNING LEAD

Northern Ireland at a standstill: 'The biggest day of strike action in a generation' today

Tens of thousands of workers across 16 unions are taking part in strike action later.

NORTHERN IRELAND COULD be brought to a standstill today due to a major public sector strike.

Unions in the North have been involved in long-running pay disputes, in some cases lasting for several years.

Workers are demanding that pay awards made to counterparts elsewhere in the UK are introduced in Northern Ireland.

To further that end, some sixteen trade unions with joint membership totalling around 170,000 will be taking part in industrial action today.

Teachers, doctors and nurses, bus and train drivers, and civil servants will be among those taking to the picket lines.

While members across these various sectors have been involved in industrial action over the past 12 months, this will be the first co-ordinated action across a single day.

At an executive council meeting of the ICTU yesterday, unanimous support was voiced for affiliate unions engaging in industrial action across the North today. 

Speaking after the meeting, ICTU’s general secretary Owen Reidy noted that he expects today to be the “largest industrial dispute in the history of Northern Ireland”.

He added: “Public service workers in Northern Ireland are being used as political pawns by this discredited Tory government.

“Many of these workers have not had a pay increase for three years, despite the post covid situation and the cost of living crisis.

“The money is available but workers are being held to ransom. This is unacceptable and not sustainable.”

Reidy also called on the Irish government to “be aware of the consequences of a failure to reach an agreement on public sector pay and the expansion of public services in this jurisdiction”.

‘Unprecedented scale’

Health chiefs in the North have warned that disruption will be on a “massive and unprecedented scale” and the Department of Health has advised people to “take all sensible steps to reduce your chances of requiring health service treatment”.

Schools are expected to be closed as all the main teaching unions and other education staff will be on strike and public transport will not be running.

Unison will be one of the trade unions taking part in the strike – it has 40,000 members across health, social care, education and the community voluntary sector.

John-Patrick Clayton is a policy specialist with Unison and he told The Journal that those within health and social care make up a substantial part of its membership.

“They’ve been involved in industrial action in health for over 12 months,” explains Clayton.

“We also have members in education support services, so for example classroom assistants, people who provide catering and cleaning services in schools, and so on.

“They’ve been on industrial action for the last several months and had a day of strike action last November in relation to ongoing disputes around pay.”

When it comes to those working in the health sector, Clayton said “their huge sense of frustration is the fact that they have seen NHS workers in every other part of the UK receive a pay award”.

nurse strike Members of the Royal College of Nursing on the picket line outside Mater Infirmorum Hospital in Belfast in 2022 PA PA

“They’ve been struggling with high rates of inflation, the rising cost of living, but they’ve seen their colleagues get pay awards in other parts of the NHS and they haven’t received a pay award.

“They feel they’re being left behind and that it’s a really unacceptable situation they’ve been put in.”

In December 2019, over 20,000 people working across the health service in the North took part in strike action to seek pay parity between Northern Ireland and colleagues across the rest of the UK working in the NHS.

“The Stormont Executive, when it came back in early 2020, re-established pay parity,” remarked Clayton.

“So the concern our members have is that they have seen a pay award made in other parts of the NHS and this link to pay parity appears to have been broken again.

“That is at the core of the dispute and the reason why they’re taking strike action.”

Education

When it comes to those working within education, Clayton told The Journal that the “dispute is around what is described as a pay and grading review”.

“This is a process that’s been ongoing for several years with the Education Authority and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland,” explained Clayton.

Northern Ireland’s Education Authority was instructed to implement the pay and grading review in 2018 to deliver a fair and equal pay structure.

Clayton said these reforms are necessary to ensure the education support services workforce is “treated fairly and properly valued for the hugely important job they do in the delivery of education services”.

Clayton added: “We want to see them recognised for that, but funding hasn’t been released to actually deliver on that pay and grading review.”

The funding to deliver this review is available but is being withheld by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris.

In December, the UK Government offered a £3.3 billion (€3.85b) package to stabilise finances in Northern Ireland, including £600 million (€700m) to settle public sector pay claims.

However, it will only be available when the Stormont institutions are restored.

The DUP is refusing to participate in devolved government until unionists’ concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements are tackled by the UK Government.

Speaking yesterday during a recalled session of the Stormont Assembly in a failed attempt to elect a speaker, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill voiced concern that Stormont may never return as she accused the DUP of refusing to accept a nationalist first minister.

michelle o'neill Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber yesterday PA PA

The DUP yesterday used its veto to again block the election of a speaker and a first and deputy first minister.

Heaton-Harris has been urged to intervene in the interim and secure the release of the funding for public sector workers.

Clayton explained: “In the absence of a Stormont Executive, it’s the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who’s been setting the budgets for public services in Northern Ireland.

“The budgets that have been provided have led to cuts being proposed across public services and across government departments and haven’t provided the resources needed to deal with issues of pay, either in health or in education.

“In health, we’ve been repeatedly calling on Heaton-Harris to do something about pay because there’s been a pay award in other parts of the NHS and that should have translated into a pay award for health workers in Northern Ireland.

“Before Christmas, Heaton-Harris said there were resources available for pay, but he hasn’t released those resources, which is causing huge frustration.”

heaton-harris File image of Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris PA PA

While Clayton said there is a need to see the Stormont Executive restored, he called for this “money to be released by Heaton-Harris to try and move these issues around public sector pay”.

“The Secretary of State has said previously he doesn’t and can’t negotiate on issues of pay, but we haven’t asked him to negotiate,” said Clayton.

“We’re asking him to release the funding that’s needed to allow these issues to be dealt with and that’ll be the message our members will be delivering today.”

‘Political football’

Clayton told The Journal that there is widespread frustration that this issue can’t be resolved.

“If the executive is not in place, our members still need to have their issues of pay dealt with.

“That’s what leads to this huge sense of frustration, there is a Secretary of State there who has responsibility for governance and for setting the budgets for public services, and who has said that there are resources there for pay.

“The frustration is very much a feeling that our members don’t want to be used as political leverage,” said Clayton.

“Heaton-Harris has said there are resources there, and our message is that those resources need to be released.

“The head of the civil service and the chief executives of the various health trusts in Northern Ireland have all made statements highlighting the need to deal with the issues of pay and for that funding to be made available.”

Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, had written to Heaton-Harris calling for this funding to be released to stop today’s strike action.

brady Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has called for funding to be released to prevent the strikes PA PA

Her letter read: “You have publicly stated that the UK Government cannot, and will not, stand by and allow public services and finances to decline further.

“This Thursday will represent the single biggest day of industrial action in a generation, reflecting the strength of feeling and deteriorating, and frankly untenable, position we are now in.”

Clayton added that Unison members “do not want to find their issues becoming a political football”.

“They know they’re making very reasonable demands in relation to pay, they’ve seen pay awards made in the NHS in England, for example, and they want to see moves made to value them here.”

‘Devil in the detail’

When asked if the release of these funds would be enough to meet the demands of those striking, Clayton said he “wouldn’t want to raise expectations that that would be everything sorted”.

“That would be a major step in the right direction,” said Clayton, “but the devil is in the detail.

“While the funding would be released, we would then expect guarantees around what funding will be made available across the various disputes that we’re involved in.

“There would also need to be discussions, either with an executive or with the departments, in relation to how that funding would then be used, but first and foremost the funding needs to be released.

“Releasing this funding would represent a big step but there would need to be work done after that with the unions to get us to a point where there was an offer that we could put to our membership that was being made by employers and by the departments.”

Elsewhere, Clayton said today’s strikes will be an opportunity for people to “make their voices heard very loudly alongside other public sector workers from other trade unions”.

“They need to be valued and they need to be treated fairly, and they’ll be delivering that message to all who are in a position to do something about it.

“Where will we go after today’s strikes? We’ll be engaging with our representatives across our various branches to look at what the next steps might be.

“But we’ve been very clear that our members aren’t going to sit back and accept what is really an unacceptable position.

“They need a solution and they’ll continue to call for that and this sense of frustration will continue until they see some really positive developments.”

-With additional reporting from Press Association

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