Northern Ireland comes to ‘unprecedented’ standstill as public sector workers strike

Industrial action by nurses, teachers, bus and train drivers shuts schools and suspends public transport

Northern Ireland will come to an “unprecedented” standstill on Thursday as up to 170,000 public sector workers take part in the largest strike in the North in a generation.

Members from 17 trade unions, including nurses, midwives, bus and train drivers, teachers and ambulance staff, are involved in the 24-hour industrial action which has closed schools, suspended public transport and cut healthcare provision to emergencies only.

The Department of Infrastructure on Wednesday night warned people not to travel, saying “only absolutely essential journeys” should be made on Thursday.

“The road network will be hazardous for travel due to widespread icy conditions and will not have been gritted apart from some limited gritting on the M1 and M2 motorways, the A1 and the A4,” it said.


The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said, “If you do need to use the roads, please take extra care and allow additional time for your journey.”

The Department of Health warned of disruption on a “massive and unprecedented scale” with a minimum, Christmas Day-style service in operation. It said people should “take all sensible steps to reduce your chances of requiring health service treatment on the day” but those who need emergency care should “seek it immediately”.

Other public services will also be severely disrupted or cancelled, and some cancer nurses will go on strike for the first time.

Public sector unions have been involved in a long-running dispute over pay and are campaigning to have their salaries brought into line with those in England, Scotland and Wales and for the proper resourcing of public services.

With the North’s devolved government suspended, senior civil servants are running Stormont departments with a budget set by the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, and say it is insufficient to make a pay award.

Money to settle the dispute is included in the £3.3 billion (€3.84bn) package on offer from the UK government if the North’s Assembly and Executive are restored.

As expected, a recall of the Assembly on Wednesday failed to re-establish the political institutions after the DUP again blocked the election of the Speaker, and Mr Heaton-Harris resisted calls from unions and politicians to decouple the public sector pay issue from efforts to re-establish powersharing and settle the pay dispute immediately.

Picket lines will be in place on Thursday across Northern Ireland and trade unions have organised parades and rallies in towns and cities, including Belfast, Derry, Ballymena, Omagh, Enniskillen, Cookstown and Magherafelt. Police have warned there could be some disruption to travel.

Gerry Murphy, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), said public servants felt they had “no option” but to strike and were “fed up with being used as political pawns in what is clearly a failed political strategy on the part of Chris Heaton-Harris”.

“We’ve won the popular argument, we’ve won the political argument, and we’ve won the financial argument as well, because the UK treasury and the British government both accept that this place has been underfunded for God knows how many years and there needs to be a fair funding settlement,” he said.

Calling on Mr Heaton-Harris to “do the decent thing” and immediately release the money to settle the pay dispute, Mr Murphy said the Northern Secretary “has been shown to be someone who can change his mind, and we believe that once he sees the strength of public feeling manifest on the streets today, he will change his mind again”.

In a statement on Thursday morning, Mr Heaton-Harris said the UK had offered a “fair and generous package worth over £3 billion which would address public sector pay and provides more than £1 billion to stabilise public service” and he was “deeply disappointed” this had not been taken up but it remained “on the table”.

Urging the restoration of the devolved government, he said “it is time for the NI parties to take decisions on how they will best serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times