Today across the north of Ireland, 170,000 workers are standing together on strike against real-terms pay cuts and the neglect caused by dysfunction at the highest levels of the Assembly.

It was a chilly morning across Northern Ireland, with snow and ice warnings across the country, and the temperature hovering around zero degrees. But cold conditions were no deterrent to the tens of thousands of public sector workers who took to the picket lines today. The coordinated strike action, involving 170,000 workers and sixteen unions, is the biggest in decades.

Today’s action involves teachers, transport workers, nurses, civil servants and many other public sector workers. Many of them have not received a pay rise since the Northern Irish Executive collapsed in February 2022. In the almost two years since, Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK, has been crippled by a cost-of-living crisis. But, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK, workers’ pay in Northern Ireland has not risen to meet this increased cost of living.

Outside Belfast City Hospital, healthcare workers from all unions came out in the freezing cold to picket for fair pay and proper funding for the health service. ‘Our counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales all received their uplift for 2023/24 last July,’ said Craig Gill, radiography engineer at the City Hospital Cancer Centre. ‘We still haven’t been offered anything yet.’

NIPSA official for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Catherine Arkinson, stated that her members were not just striking over pay, but also in relation to safe staffing. ‘The NHS is in crisis, and demands on the health service continue to rise,’ she told Tribune. ‘We don’t believe enough is being done to ensure safe staffing levels, and we know that safe staffing saves lives.’

As well as hundreds of picket lines in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, workers from all sections of the public sector came together in solidarity to advocate for systemic change. Rallies were held in Derry, Enniskillen, Ballymena, Omagh, Magherafelt, and Cookstown. The biggest was outside Belfast City Hall. Speakers from numerous unions, including UNISON, INTO, UCU, Unite and NIPSA, called for pay parity with the rest of the UK; long term, inflation-based pay rises and funding budgets, and for continued solidarity between workers across Northern Ireland. Politicians such as Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris and the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Jeffrey Donaldson bore the brunt of the criticism over the decimation of public services.

‘The Tory government has been using the people of Northern Ireland as political pawns,’ said Irish Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary Owen Reidy to the crowd at City Hall. ‘The time for hollow words is over.’

The unprecedented scale of today’s strike action was the latest in a long list of industrial action taken by public sector workers in recent years. In December, bus and train drivers across Northern Ireland took part in in industrial action related to pay disputes on the weekends leading up to Christmas. In September, thousands of healthcare and civil service workers took part in a 48-hour strike over pay and staffing disputes. Thousands of teachers and other members of school staff were on strike in November and were taking action short of strike most of last year.

Political stalemate in Northern Ireland has taken its toll on the public sector. With no ministers in Stormont to sign off on funding, vital money allocated to the public and the charity sectors, has not been accessible. Despite numerous attempts by MLAs, as well as the UK and Irish governments, to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the DUP have put up repeated blocks. The party have been boycotting any attempts at devolved government in protest over the Windsor Framework, a post-Brexit trade deal.

The UK government has offered a financial package of more than £3 billion, contingent on the return of the NI Assembly, of which more than £500 million has been earmarked to address public sector pay issues. However, in a letter to Chris Heaton-Harris earlier this week, the head of the NI Civil Service estimated that it would take £634 million to bring Northern Irish civil servants’ pay in line with the rest of the UK. In other areas of the public sector, there is a similar discrepancy. The starting salary for a teacher in Northern Ireland is £24,137, but this rises to more than £30,000 in the rest of the UK. For nurses in Northern Ireland, they can expect a starting salary of £27,055, which rises to more than £28,000 in England and Wales, and £30,399 in Scotland. ‘Low pay is making it very difficult to retain nursing staff,’ said Rita Devlin, Director of the Royal College of Nurses in Northern Ireland, ‘Patients and staff are suffering every single day.’

In her letter, NICS head Jayne Brady urged Heaton-Harris to take ‘urgent action’ ahead of the strike, mirroring the views of many union leaders that the UK Government has the power to release these much-needed funds but is choosing not to use it.

Niall McNally, regional organiser for SIPTU who represent many transport workers in NI, claimed that Heston-Harris was using these funds as political leverage. ‘Responsibility for the disruption arising from this strike falls solely at the feet of the Secretary of State who is refusing to use the powers he has,’ said McNally.

While politicians debate, it is the public who are facing the consequences. School staff from across Belfast were picketing outside the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, over issues around fair pay and temporary contracts, but also in relation to the impact the lack of funding has on the students. ‘In recent years class numbers seem to have got an awful lot bigger, and it’s harder to give students the individual attention that they need,’ said Marian Johnson, who has been a classroom assistant at a local special school for 18 years. ‘It’s made the working environment for some people extremely difficult, and it’s very worrying.’ 

Lack of stability and any form of a pay rise to meet the rising cost of living is having real impacts on workers in Northern Ireland. In 2023, the number of people using food banks in Northern Ireland rose by 23 percent, the biggest increase in the UK, with nearly 10,000 people using a food bank for the first time that year. Others have had to take on second jobs to survive. ‘We are always on temporary contracts, always have that uncertainty, so I’ve also had a temporary job in Tesco,’ Johnson said. ‘I feel like most of the country has one of those.’  

Wednesday of this week was the last chance Chris Heaton-Harris had to restore the Northern Ireland Executive before an election would have to be called, pushing the possibility for resolutions around public sector pay further down the road.

As union leaders have suggested, if the demands put forward on this day of mass strike action are not met, there is the possibility of escalation. ‘I am calling for a campaign of public disobedience and resistance against the dismantling of our public services,’ said NIPSA’s Deputy General Secretary Patrick Mulholland, ‘public disobedience is not recklessness; it is an act of desperation in the face of a system that no longer listens to reason.’ Even if the demands of this historic strike action are met, the mobilisation of Northern Irish workers is unlikely to stop here. 

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