Nurses are taking to the picket lines today across all Health and Social Care (HSC) trusts in Northern Ireland, to demand pay parity with their colleagues in England.
They join other public sector colleagues in a day of mass industrial action, in what has been described as the biggest strike in Northern Ireland’s history.
An estimated 170,000 public sector workers belonging to 15 trade unions are taking part in the walk-outs over pay, in strike action that has been organised by the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Unison, Unite and the Royal College of Midwives are among the unions representing nursing and midwifery staff.
Nurses and their HSC colleagues are still without a pay deal for 2023-24, or an improved offer for 2022-23, due to the political impasse taking place at Stormont.
For two years, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been boycotting Stormont in defiance of post-Brexit policies affecting Northern Ireland.
The UK Government has offered a financial package worth more than £3bn to cover a public pay deal, on the condition that Stormont is reformed.
Unions have criticised the move, accusing the UK Government of using nurse pay as a political football.
They have urged the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, to release the money now to restore pay parity with England.
This is the second time in recent years that nurses in Northern Ireland have fallen out of pay parity with their UK colleagues amid a collapse of Stormont.
Strikes by nurses back in 2019-20 successfully resolved the situation then.
However, nurses in Northern Ireland have now once again fallen out of pay parity.
The RCN held a strike in December in 2022 in response, and warned of further action should a pay offer for 2023-24 fail to materialise.
Rita Devlin, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: “It is immoral and reprehensible that four years after we secured pay parity, we are back on the picket lines demanding exactly the same thing.
“Our politicians promised we would never again fall out of pay parity with our UK colleagues, but that is precisely what has happened.”
Ms Devlin said the fact that nurses have been told there is money for a pay rise but was being withheld for political reasons was “quite unbelievable”.
“Our members are angry, they are frustrated, and they are no longer willing to accept this unfair and unjustifiable treatment,” she added.
Meanwhile, for Unison, this will be the sixth day of industrial action to demand that a 2023-34 pay offer is put forward for its members.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Health, care, school and other public service employees are hugely frustrated.
“Public sector workers never want to strike. But this intolerable situation has left them with no other option.
“NHS workers in the rest of the UK have had their wage rise for this year, but their colleagues in Northern Ireland have been left in limbo.”
Strikes are taking place across all HSC trusts in the country, with major picket lines in locations such as Belfast, Derry, Omagh and Enniskillen.
The RCN has implemented a three-tier system of derogations for the day of strike action.
All critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care, regional forensic units and psychiatric units will be exempt from strike action.
Meanwhile, emergency departments and inpatient services will operate at night shift levels and community services will operate at Christmas Day staffing levels.
However, dialysis units, chemotherapy services and theatre will not be derogated, meaning severe disruption is expected to take place.
Responding to the strike action, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I am deeply disappointed that the significant funding offer from the UK Government to address such issues has not been taken up.
“This package has been on the table since before Christmas and will remain there, available on day one for an incoming Northern Ireland executive.”
The strike action today has coincided with the legal deadline for Northern Ireland to form a government, otherwise Mr Heaton-Harris has the power to call an election.
In a final attempt yesterday to establish an executive, the Northern Ireland assembly was recalled and politicians gathered to try and elect a Stormont speaker, but failed to do so.
This means there has been no restoration of power-sharing institutions.
Mr Heaton-Harris added: “It is regrettable that the Northern Ireland parties were unable to come together yesterday to elect a speaker and restore the executive.
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve local political leadership from representatives they have elected to govern on their behalf.”
More to follow…