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Northern Ireland’s public sector strike may have been doomed before it began

The trade union movement is avoiding direct criticism of the DUP. And Jeffrey Donaldson can’t be seen to give in on the sea border to avoid embarrassment over public sector pay

It will be hard to gauge the reaction to Thursday’s huge public sector strike in Northern Ireland, and not just because many people will be kept indoors by the weather.

The last comparable action was by nurses in 2019 – the first nursing strike anywhere in the UK. It coincided with a general election, which voters used to punish Sinn Féin and the DUP for the collapse of Stormont. Both parties were shocked into resolving their differences and devolution was restored within weeks.

Then as now, the principal reason for the strike was a pay freeze due to the absence of Stormont ministers. However, nurses also wanted Stormont back to address a wider crisis in the health service. So did voters, who were horrified by an increase in hospital waiting lists.

Repeating this trick has been on everyone’s mind but there is no imminent election to translate public anger into political pressure. Even if there were – the British government might suddenly fall – it is unclear whether the DUP would have anything to fear. Its support in opinion polls has grown throughout Stormont’s collapse.


There is confusion over who the strike is targeting. The trade union movement has a cross-community membership so it is avoiding direct criticism of Jeffrey Donaldson’s party, just as it avoided criticising Sinn Féin in 2019. Unions are instead blaming Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris for withholding pay rises, as he offered money to settle the dispute last month if the DUP returned to work. Every Stormont party has found it convenient to blame Heaton-Harris as well. Yet pay deals remain a devolved matter and restoring devolution is obviously in the hands of the DUP. Such mixed-up messaging risks turning the strike into an aimless howl of frustration.

Devolution is still the overwhelming preference of the population, according to all polling and academic research, yet public clamour for its return is not as evident as might be expected. Although hospital waiting lists have tripled since 2019, this appears to have pushed the public into fatalism. Ultimately, the health service is failing because Stormont lacks the courage to reform it, even when devolution is operating.

The 15 unions striking on Thursday also represent staff in education, public transport, roads and policing. The problems that have built up in these and other services throughout a decade of on-off governance are almost as daunting as those in health. Since the DUP collapsed devolution in 2022, a burst of inflation has cut real-term median pay across the public sector by 11 per cent. It is fair to surmise most people feel this must be addressed, while also feeling scepticism about bringing Stormont back to fix problems Stormont caused.

The pandemic may have changed public attitudes since 2019. One day of de facto lockdown, or several if strikes recur, has lost some of its power to disrupt and much of its power to shock. Conversely, patience with school closures is thin. All five of Northern Ireland’s teaching unions have been striking together to emphasise the seriousness of their concerns. Two half-day walkouts last April and November were the first strikes by the head teacher’s union in its 127-year history. Parents appeared unimpressed, while officials condemned the futility of the action and its impact on children. There is a strong sense enough schooling has been missed.

Civil Service union Nipsa has further muddied the strike’s waters by calling for “civil disobedience and resistance”. Its deputy general secretary told the BBC on Monday strikers could block roads and occupy buildings “within the law”.

Other unions immediately distanced themselves from these calls, including the Police Federation, the union for PSNI officers, which has expressed sympathy with the strike although its members are barred from joining it. Parts of Nipsa will also have been aghast. The union is split into two eternally feuding factions, most easily explained as Sinn Féin-adjacent and People Before Profit-adjacent, with calls for civil disobedience mainly stemming from the latter.

The obsession of the left with street politics is not shared by most people in Northern Ireland, who associate blocking the road with Orange parades, riots and a past best not repeated. Such tactics on Thursday could backfire.

The most counterproductive aspect of the strike is that the DUP cannot be seen to give into it. Donaldson dare not appear to compromise on the sea border, a fundamental issue for his party and its supporters, over a passing embarrassment on public sector pay.

So if a Stormont deal had been on the cards this week or next, it must wait another week or two. That will take us into next month, when financial issues must be agreed to meet a budget deadline in March. Then Westminster rises for Easter and there are rumours of an election in May. Donaldson’s moment is passing.