Nurses are back on the picket lines once again. Nursing staff in Northern Ireland faced sub-zero temperatures as low as -6°C this week to make their point on frozen pay in their country.
But it is the freeze on political activity that is the real problem, rather than the cold snap that is sweeping the UK this week, though the latter will not have helped ameliorate winter pressures.
Nurses from Unison, Unite and the Royal College of Nursing – representing all Health and Social Care trusts in Northern Ireland – were on strike to demand pay parity with their colleagues in England.
They joined other public sector colleagues in a day of mass industrial action, in what has been described as the biggest strike in Northern Ireland’s recent history.
The underlying problem is, of course, the lack of a functioning assembly in Stormont after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked away from power-sharing in protest at post-Brexit trade checks in February 2022.
DUP leaders are meeting today, Friday 19 January, to decide whether to finally return and end the impasse.
There have been multiple failed attempts over the past 18 months to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland – seven in fact. We shall see what happens this time.
But surely the situation cannot go on. Last year, civil servants were left to dole out funding from a budget set by the UK Government but could not make any new funding decisions.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has offered a £3.3bn package, including funding to settle public sector pay claims, but it is dependent on the DUP coming back to Stormont.
“RCN Northern Ireland leader Pat Cullen took members of the union out on strike for the first time in its history anywhere in 2019”
He has faced strong criticism on the picket lines from nurses, who argued that they and other public sector workers were being used as pawns in ministers’ attempts to try and force the hand of the DUP.
Speaking to Nursing Times, staff nurse Edel Coulter said: “It’s quite simple – the money is there. Nurses shouldn’t be used as leverage in some kind of political chess game.”
In what is now a fast-moving situation, as well as the DUP meeting, the Northern Ireland secretary said today that he will introduce new legislation to address the political deadlock in the country.
Mr Heaton-Harris said his proposed legislation would support Northern Ireland departments to manage “the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances”.
While it’s not clear at this precise moment what these proposals will be, one would hope that they include a serious attempt to head off another 24-hour strike by 150,000 public sector staff.
However, that’s not the only reason to melt the ice in Stormont. As well as pay, the lack of a functioning assembly is potentially holding back other policies affecting nurses in Northern Ireland.
For example, the country’s chief nursing officer, Maria McIlgorm, recently spoke to Nursing Times about her workforce plans and wider ambitions for nursing. Such plans work better with funding.
But it’s the pay situation that has really brought people to the picket lines. Belfast endoscopy nurse Bernadette Officer told us that rising living costs had made nurses desperate for a pay uplift.
“Our bills are rising and our pay is not,” she said to Nursing Times senior reporter Ella Devereux . This time last year, nurses in England and Wales were doing the same thing and for the same reason.
And let us not forget that it was in Northern Ireland that the touchpaper was lit for the industrial action that was taken by their colleagues in other parts of the UK during 2022 and 2023.
Then RCN Northern Ireland leader Pat Cullen took members of the union out on strike for the first time in its history anywhere in 2019. They won better pay and also legislation on safe staffing levels.
Their action forced members of the assembly, which was once again suspended due to political disagreement, to return and formulate an offer. This week Pat was back, joining the picket line.
In a message to members on the eve of the strike, she said: “It was your sheer determination and commitment to your patients that saw the return of the executive here in January 2020.
“It’s immoral what’s happening to nurses in Northern Ireland. Once again seeing their pay drop behind that of nurses across the other countries of the UK,” she added.
The nurses, midwives and other HSC staff of Northern Ireland deserve a break. Pay parity with their colleagues across the rest of the UK is surely only fair and not an unreasonable expectation.
The complex political situation in Northern Ireland will no doubt always be frosty to some extent but must thaw enough over the coming days and weeks for HSC staff there to regain some hope.
They have done it before and, if anyone can, perhaps it is nurses and their health service colleagues who can stimulate the restart of power-sharing in some form. Nursing Times sincerely hopes so.