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Demonstrators march to Belfast City Hall this afternoon Alamy Stock Photo
Industrial Action

NI Strikes: Varadkar says public sector workers haven't got pay increases 'they should have'

Some 16 trade unions with joint membership totalling around 170,000 are taking part in industrial action today.


THE TAOISEACH has said that Northern Ireland’s public service workers have not gotten the pay increases “they should have” because of the region’s collapsed government assembly. 

Speaking on what is possibly the biggest day of cross-industry strike action in Northern Ireland’s history, Leo Varadkar said that people who work in “hospitals, schools, policemen” haven’t got the pay increases they should because there isn’t a “functioning Government”. 

He added that the Irish Government is keen to work “more closely” with the UK Government towards seeing power sharing being restored in Northern Ireland. 

“Northern Ireland really only functions when Dublin and London are working together and have a common strategy,” the Taoiseach said. 

He added that there are issues related to Northern Ireland that he and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “don’t see eye to eye on”. 

Thousands of public sector workers have taken to the picket line in Northern Ireland. 

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.

For example, a teacher’s starting salary in the North is around £24,137 (€28,149), but this figure stands at £30,000 (€34,982) in England, £30,742 (€35,847) in Wales, and £32,317 (€37,691) in Scotland.

To further the end of pay parity, some 16 trade unions with joint membership totalling around 170,000 are taking part in industrial action today.

Teachers, doctors and nurses, bus and train drivers, and civil servants are 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.

In Belfast this afternoon, as demonstrators made their way from the Mater Hospital to City Hall, chants of “Tory, Tory, Tory, out, out, out” could be heard. 

Other protests are taking place at Stormont and the NIO headquarters in Belfast, the Guildhall Square in Derry, Omagh court house and Enniskillen town hall. 

Speaking to The Journal after today’s march at Belfast City Hall, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole he was proud to be standing with the “public sector workers who keep our society going”.

“They really are the best of us, and they’ve had to come out in freezing conditions and miss a day’s pay in order to stand, not for an exorbitant pay rise, but for a modest pay increase they’ve already been promised by a Conservative Secretary of State who has let them down.”

However, O’Toole added that it is “the DUP who have given Heaton-Harris the power to treat workers like this”.

O’Toole also said that if “there is a shred of decency” in Heaton-Harris or in DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, “they will see that this is an indefensible and immoral position the public sector workers have been put in”.

“They were promised a modest pay settlement before Christmas, that money was dangled in front of them, and they’ve since been let down.

“I hope Heaton-Harris, but particularly Jeffrey Donald and the rest of the DUP, see these crowds today and finally allow us back to do our jobs.”

O’Toole also claimed that Heaton-Harris is a “hard-right Tory politician” and that “he is using working people as a pawn in a standoff with the DUP”.

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

However, it will only be available when the Stormont institutions are restored and the DUP yesterday vetoed a last-ditch effort to restore Stormont ahead of today’s strikes.

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

Speaking to the BBC today, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said she can “only hope” that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson “is listening and hears the plight of the workers and, even at this late juncture, makes the right call and joins with the rest of us around that executive table and let us do our best to try and support these workers and ensure they have proper pay and conditions”.

Heaton-Harris has been urged to intervene in the interim and secure the release of the funding for public sector workers, but he has refused to do so, saying the matter is a devolved one.

In a statement, he said it was “regrettable” that the Stormont Assembly had not been resurrected to access funds to make the pay awards to public sector workers.

Today also marks the deadline in current legislation for the resumption of Stormont, or the Secretary of State is obliged to call a fresh election.

‘Entirely incompetent’

Speaking to The Journal from a picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Belfast, Stephen Dowds from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said that teachers are “three years out of a pay deal and during that time the cost of living crisis has seen inflation rates double figures for most of those three years”.

“Our pay has been completely stagnant during that time,” he said. 

“Our local politicians are entirely incompetent at the minute and what we have is a British government that is absolutely negligent in what they’re doing,” Dowds said.

Dowds criticised Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris and said he has “used workers all through Northern Ireland as his pawn to try force our local politicians to do something, which they’re not willing to do, so now he needs to take his decision and do his job”. 

“We’ve been doing our job for the last three years with limited support from our politicians, both here and across the water, and we now have a situation where both of them are absent. We need a massive change and that’s what this day is all about,” Dowds said. 

The strike is having a major impact, with schools closed, hospitals offering only Christmas Day-level services, public transport cancelled and limited gritting of the roads in minus temperatures.

The Department for Infrastructure has urged people not to travel unless it is “absolutely essential”, saying there will only be limited gritting on a small number of roads including the M1, M2, A1 and A4.

Speaking at City Hall this afternoon, Nipsa general secretary Carmel Gates said strike action will grow if demands aren’t met. 

“They know we are under-funded and we don’t have enough money for services, and we are not going to accept anything less than we need.

“If today does not make Heaton-Harris take notice, if today does not make him pass over the money, then we will be back here and increase and become bigger and bigger.

She finished her speech outside Belfast City Hall by chanting: “Workers united will never be defeated.”

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy also addressed the crowds at Belfast City Hall and he called on Heaton-Harris to end his “failed political strategy” and award a pay rise to workers.

Mark McTaggart of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said Donaldson was keeping Stormont in suspension because of his concerns over the Irish Sea border.

He added: “Yet he is more than happy to have a sea border for pay for public sector workers.”

Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT added: “To the DUP, we say get back into government.

“We fully understand that there are issues arising from Brexit that are problematic but these issues must be addressed within the agreed political framework. 

“The Tories have taken our money, the DUP should not take our hope.”

Following today’s action, Unite has confirmed industrial action by its members will continue in the absence of any move by Heaton-Harris to release the funds it says are necessary to provide a cost-of-living pay increase. 

Representatives of the three public transport unions participating in the action – Unite, GMB and Siptu – will meet tomorrow to agree the next steps in their industrial campaign. 

Includes reporting by Diarmuid Pepper (in Belfast) and Press Association

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