Northern Ireland public sector workers vow ‘this is not the end’ for mass industrial action

Members of 17 unions representing 170,000 staff took to picket lines on Thursday in dispute over sector funding and pay

Over 170,000 public-sector workers in the North staged a 24-hour strike over pay. Video: Enda O'Dowd

Striking workers have vowed “this is not the end” and they will continue their campaign after mass industrial action by trade unions brought Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill on Thursday.

Schools were closed, public transport was suspended, snow-covered roads went ungritted and only emergency healthcare was provided as members of 17 unions representing 170,000 workers took to picket lines in an ongoing dispute over pay and public sector funding.

Some 170,000 public-sector workers in the North are staging a 24-hour strike.

The Northern Ireland Department of Health said on Thursday said the health service was under “significant pressure” with “all aspects” of health and social care affected and warning of “additional delays” for those seeking urgent treatment.

The Department of Infrastructure warned the North’s road network “would remain hazardous for travel” on Friday with gritting likely to recommence “on a limited basis” and confined to main roads only. Road users should “think carefully” about the need to travel on Friday, it said.

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On picket lines and at rallies on Thursday unions repeated their call for the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, to settle the public sector pay claim immediately by decouple the money needed from a wider offer of £3.3 billion which is on offer from the UK government if the Stormont Assembly and executive are restored.

Mr Heaton-Harris has given no indication so far that he intends to do so, instead saying public sector pay is a devolved matter and urging the restoration of the Northern political institutions.

Workers take part in protest action in Belfast on Thursday. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Three of the unions involved, Unite, GMB and Siptu, have said they will meet on Friday to discuss the next steps, and others are expected to do so shortly.

The general secretary of the Nipsa trade union, Carmel Gates, speaking at a picket line at Stormont, said members were “angry and they are not going to back down.

“This is not something which is a temporary fight,” she said. “This is the beginning. We will escalate.

“The Secretary of State needs to know that this is not the end.”

The assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), Gerry Murphy, told the thousands who attended a rally at Belfast City Hall that the remaining obstacle was [Mr] “Heaton-Harris and his refusal to accept reality and his continuing to pursue a failed political strategy”.

“We will overcome that strategy too. This fight continues until we win, and we will win.”

The veteran trade unionist and campaigner Eamonn McCann, who spoke at the Derry rally, said trade unions were the “sleeping giant” of Northern Ireland society and in interview said civil disobedience “may well be necessary” in the dispute.

There were also calls for the DUP – which is continuing to block the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive – to drop its boycott and re-enter the North’s powersharing government.

Speaking at the Belfast rally, Justin McCamphill, from the teaching union the NASUWT, said “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,” he said.

Politicians, including the Sinn Féin vice-president and First Minister designate, Michelle O’Neill, and the Alliance leader Naomi Long, who visited picked lines on Thursday, repeated their call on the DUP to re-enter Stormont.

However, the DUP MP Gregory Campbell told the BBC it was “nonsense” the party was preventing workers from receiving their pay increase, saying the UK government was “holding the money back as some sort of ransom payment to try and put the workers in as pawns.”

The deadline for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive expired at midnight, which in theory puts the Northern Secretary under a legal obligation to call a fresh Assembly election to take place within 12 weeks, though he has already signalled he intends to legislate to further extend it. – Additional reporting PA

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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