Strikes: Thousands attend marches in a major strike over wages

Image source, Charles McQuillan

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The strike is described as the largest in Northern Ireland in 50 years

Thousands of public sector workers have marched during what has been described as the biggest strike in Northern Ireland for 50 years.

Workers left picket lines to join marches in Belfast, Londonderry, Omagh, Magherafelt and Enniskillen at lunchtime.

More than 100,000 workers in the public sector participate in the work day.

Bus and train services have been suspended, while schools have been closed and health services have been disrupted.

Sixteen trade unions are involved in coordinated action in a dispute over wages.

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Sixteen trade unions are involved in coordinated action to resolve the conflict

The largest rally was held at Belfast City Hall where Gerry Murphy of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said action would continue if a solution could not be found.

“This is a campaign that we will continue, this is a campaign that we will win,” he said.

Murphy said many were leaving the public sector for better pay and conditions elsewhere, and warned that services could collapse if this was not stopped.

Meanwhile, hundreds gathered at Guildhall Square in Derry where civil rights activist Eamonn McCann addressed the crowd.

Rita Devlin, from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the measure “did not need to happen” and criticized Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris for not implementing pay rises.

The UK government has offered a financial package if devolution is restored which will include provisions on pay.

Alan Berry of the GMB union said staff would prefer to be on the roads but felt they had “no other option”.

He told the BBC's Nolan Show on Thursday: “We will assess from tomorrow in terms of how we move forward, but I have no doubt that if there is no resolution to this, there will be further action.”

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Members of the GMB union picket outside the Mater Hospital in Belfast

Mr Heaton-Harris said the public sector was devolved and he was “deeply disappointed” that the Stormont parties had not accepted the funding offer.

Ms Devlin, whose union went on strike for half a day, said health workers did not want to see appointments and procedures disrupted, but added: “They are being canceled every day due to staff shortages.”

“We've had enough”

Damian Doherty, a Unite member and bus driver in Londonderry, said Heaton-Harris and Stormont must “commit to long-term investment in all our public services”.

“We are hoping that large numbers will take part in the demonstration across all sectors to send a message to Chris Heaton-Harris and other politicians to say: ‘Look, get your finger out, we are fed up with what has happened.’”

People have been advised to make only essential trips because the combination of icy conditions and lack of gravel roads makes driving dangerous.

The strikes come due to escalating disputes over pay, with many public sector workers in Northern Ireland being paid less than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

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Teaching unions have campaigned for better pay for their members

This, combined with the cost of living crisis and an ongoing political crisis that has left Northern Ireland without a devolved government for almost two years, has led to a series of strikes in healthcare, education, transport and other public sectors in recent months. .

Addressing the crowd in Belfast, Mark McTaggart, of the Irish National Teachers' Organization (INTO), said teachers in Northern Ireland are the “worst paid” in the British Isles and have been under-rated for many years.

He criticized DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson for not restoring executive power and Mr Heaton-Harris for not releasing funds to address pay disputes in the absence of a devolved government.

How will the strike affect me?

The strike will cause widespread disruption.

The Department of Health said there would be a “significantly reduced health service” and people were advised to take care “to reduce the chances of you needing health service treatment”.

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Northern Ireland strikes: Everything you need to know in 120 seconds

However, they also said that if you need emergency hospital care, “you should seek it immediately.”

Most cancer services including chemotherapy will not go ahead. During the previous industrial action, these services operated as usual.

Dialysis patients are also affected by several scheduled appointments through the system.

The strike will exacerbate the daily pressures facing Northern Ireland's health service, which is already suffering from budget problems, severe staff shortages and the worst waiting lists in the UK.

Other services affected by the strike include:

  • General Practitioners: They are not on strike but will only work on an emergency basis
  • Scheduled hospital appointments: Most have been cancelled
  • Ambulances: The focus will be on the most urgent cases
  • Translink bus and train services: all cancelled
  • Schools: Most, if not all, will be closed
  • Gravel Roads: Non-import roads will not be treated, and motorists are urged to use caution due to icy weather
  • Courts and tribunals: providing limited service

Services will take a huge hit today.

While the strike may only last 24 hours, its impact will last for several months.

The scale of services that have come to a complete halt is unimaginable – almost all appointments have been cancelled, including chemotherapy services and breast screening.

But employees have been waving red flags for more than a decade regarding wages.

Healthcare workers never want to go on strike – it goes against their spirit – but today is different.

They say there is a lack of leadership, a lack of accountability and that services are below an acceptable standard.

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RCN members on the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital

Why do so many workers go on strike?

Public sector wages in Northern Ireland have fallen sharply in real terms over the past two years due to high inflation, Stormont's budget deficit, and a lack of local ministers to allocate available resources.

However, this money is dependent on Stormont's return, and the DUP has not yet agreed to end its boycott of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland over its protest against post-Brexit trade rules.

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Union Union members are on strike at a bus stop on Lisburn Road in Belfast

“Dangle the carrot”

Speaking on Thursday, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill said the British government needed to stop “waving carrots” and provide money to resolve disputes.

She said: “Workers on the street know there is £584 million to put in their pockets, and at this stage the British government is choosing to use that as ransom against the DUP.”

“Labour are not pawns and should not be used as pawns. Pay the money, separate that from politics and separate that from the DUP boycott.”

Unions were angered by Chris Heaton-Harris making his £584m pay offer conditional on restoring devolution.

They say public sector workers are being used as “pawns” in an attempt to pressure politicians to end the crisis.

Political parties in Northern Ireland, including the Democratic Unionist Party, have also called on Heaton-Harris to release the funds.

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