Public sector workers on the strike rally in Belfast (Picture: Unite the Union NI on Twitter)

Tens of thousands of public sector workers joined Northern Ireland’s biggest ever strike on Thursday amid the ongoing political crisis in the statelet.

Teachers mounted picket lines outside both Catholic and Protestant schools, health workers stood defiantly outside hospitals and bus and train drivers picketed transport hubs. Around 170,000 public sector workers—a majority of Northern Ireland’s 220,000—struck together to demand higher pay.

On the picket line at St Michael’s primary school in Belfast, learning support assistant Niall Moreland said the aim of the strike was to force politicians to “pay people properly”.

Another worker at the school, Naomi Moreland, said, “We’re struggling to pay bills while also covering the school’s breakfast club and classroom supplies.” “The DUP need to get Stormont back up and running in order to pay everyone to be able to cope with the cost of living crisis,” she told Socialist Worker.

The devolved Stormont parliament hasn’t operated for over almost two years in February 2022 when the DUP pulled out of the power-sharing administration with republicans Sinn Fein. The party said it wouldn’t return to government in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.

A Tory compromise to get Brexit through, it said there would be post-Brexit trade checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. This was an ideological threat to the loyalist bigots of the DUP, who’ve boycotted the assembly since.

In the last assembly election in May 2022, Sinn Fein became the largest party at Stormont for the first time. Under power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, the executive cannot be restored without the support of both parties. 

If no executive was formed by 23:59 on Thursday, the Tory Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has a legal duty to call an early election. But he’s pushed back this deadline several times and has indicated he will do so again. 

The deadlock means public sector workers have not received pay rises. On Monday, parents of children with special education needs (SEN) protested outside DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s office. They were in full support of the strikes calling for him to restart Stormont.

Striking unions were Unison, GMB, Society of Radiographers, NAHT, Nipsa, Royal College of Medicine, Unite, NASUWT, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, the Ulster Teachers’ Union, British Dietetic Association and the RCN.

Joe is a teacher and NASUWT member at Aquinas Grammar school. He said that in the last round of strikes—which individual unions staged—“there was a huge public support but that feeling is even stronger now”.

From picket lines people went into town and city centres and staged rallies. Outside city hall in Belfast, strikers heard from many regional union leaders denouncing the DUP and Heaton-Harris.

Heaton Harris had told unions there was no money for pay increases. He then dangled billions in front of the DUP last month in the hope of luring them back into Stormont. But he still refuses to pay workers, saying only a devolved government can negotiate with unions.

Many strikers spoke about how politicians have money for wars—referencing Britain’s bombing of Yemen and support for Israel’s genocide of Palestinians.

Unite regional secretary Susan Fitzgerald told the crowd, “The collective effort on display today shows the power of the working class movement”.

At the Derry strike rally, Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement veteran Eamonn McCann—a member of the socialist party People Before Profit (PBP)—spoke. “There are more members of trade unions in the north of Ireland right now than all the members of political parties put together,” he said.

PBP organised a post-rally meeting for trade unionists and supporters of the strikes. Gerry Carroll, a PBP member of the Northern Ireland assembly, said union leaders had missed the opportunity to call further dates of action now.

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