Employment

Union urges workers in Northern Ireland to block roads and occupy buildings if strikes fail

Teachers, nurses, bus and train drivers, police staff and civil servants are among the 150,000 workers striking in Northern Ireland.

Unite the Union members on strike in Northern Ireland. Credit: Unite the Union

Northern Ireland needs a campaign of “civil disobedience” to protect public services, one of the country’s largest unions has urged, calling on workers to block roads and occupy buildings if current pay disputes aren’t resolved.

Teachers, nurses, bus and train drivers, police staff and civil servants are among the 150,000 public sector employees striking for better pay and conditions today across Northern Ireland today – the largest industrial action in the country’s history.

The unprecedented turnout is a “rebellion” against cuts, said Patrick Mulholland, deputy general secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA). But disruption may need to be escalated.

“I think the next step would be a generalised strike across the public, private sector. But also we would call for the mobilisation of communities, the mobilisation of ordinary people, the mobilisation of the working class,” he told The Big Issue.

“There should be disobedience, there should be resistance. People should not sit passively while children are hungry, and while people are dying on waiting lists.”

“There has to be real meaningful resistance, whether that be on the form of protests, building occupations, or blocking roads.”

The massive walk-out follows years of political dysfunction; As parties wrangle over post-Brexit trade rules, NI has been without a devolved government for nearly two years.

Partly as a consequence, pay for public servants in Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK. Workers won’t take any more, warned Unite general secretary Sharon Graham.

“Years of underfunding and cutbacks, a low pay driven staffing crisis and creeping privatisation have lacerated our vital public services,” she urged.

“Strike action is being taken by workers in defence of public services which benefit everyone. Low pay is driving a staffing crisis as workers vote with their feet.”

Why are there strikes in Northern Ireland?

The industrial action has shuttered schools, caused the cancellation of most public transport services, and crippled the health service. With road gritters among the striking workers, people have been advised to avoid non-essential journeys.

The key issue at stake is pay. Most public sector workers in Northern Ireland have not received a pay rise for some years. Amid surging inflation, this constitutes a real-terms pay cut. Northern Irish wages subsequently lag behind their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The starting salary for a teacher in the region is £24,000, nearly £6,000 less than the equivalent in England. Pay for nurses and civil servants is about £1,000 less per year in Northern Ireland.

“We’re on a cliff edge,” explained NIPSA’s Patrick Mulholland. “Public service pay in Northern Ireland has fallen dramatically behind all other parts of these islands. The state of our public services is dire. People are on waiting lists so long, that it’s impacting their mortality.”

Why is there currently no government in Northern Ireland?

So why can’t the government raise public service salaries? This is where it gets complex.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government at Stormont is supposed to set the departmental budgets for public services. It is from these budgets that public sector salaries are paid out.

But Stormont has not had a functioning government for nearly two years.

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s main parties must share power in government, with the cabinet split between unionist and nationalist parties.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is currently refusing to participate in government, a protest against the sea-border created by Brexit. As part of the UK, NI is no longer legally in the EU Customs Union – but because there is no hard border with the Republic of Ireland, it remains an entry point to it. This has created a de facto customs border down the Irish Sea.

The DUP has refused to take part in government until this de facto border is dissolved. Without its unionist component, the devolved government cannot function.

What do unions in Northern Ireland want?

Unions are calling on Chris Heaton-Harris – the UK government’s Northern Ireland secretary – to release public sector funds unilaterally.

But Heaton-Harris says he doesn’t have the power to release these funds without the support of the devolved NI government – a government that currently doesn’t exist.

In December, the UK government offered Stormont £3.3bn for its public sector, a lump sum that would facilitate £600m worth of pay increases. But this lump-sum was contingent on the restoration of the Stormont government.

“I am deeply disappointed that the significant funding offer from the UK government to address such issues has not been taken up,” Heaton-Harris said. “This package has been on the table since before Christmas and will remain there, available on day one for an incoming Northern Ireland Executive.”

But workers are increasingly tired of the buck-passing, and Heaton-Harris has become a lightning rod for mounting anger over political dysfunction.

Earlier this month, NIPSA’s general secretary, Carmel Gates, said that Heaton-Harris had “dangled the promise of money in front of workers, while withholding the very funds they desperately need”.

The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Union slammed Heaton-Harris for ignoring his “responsibility” to provide public sector workers with fair pay.

The Irish National Teacher’s Association was similarly scathing.

“I have said it before and I say it again, a just public sector pay solution cannot be dependent on the action or inaction of any politician or political party,” said northern secretary Mark McTaggart.

“I call on the British secretary of state to stop this political house of cards charade.”

Chants of “release the money” have been heard at picket lines from Belfast to Derry.

As the recrimination drags on, it is workers – and the public – who are paying the price. The Royal College of Nurses – one of the 16 unions partaking in the strike – described the pay disparity for Northern Irish health staff as “nothing short of immoral.”

“Low pay is making it very difficult to retain nursing staff in the health service and we are not willing to tolerate this any longer,” said Rita Devlin, the director of the RCN in Northern Ireland.

“Patients and staff are suffering every single day due to the lack of political movement which not only affects pay but prevents the transformation of services that has been needed for years. We have no choice but to take further action.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'It's an epidemic': 1.4 million workers trapped in insecure jobs are stuck in precarious rented homes
insecure work and insecure rented homes impact life decisions
Employment

'It's an epidemic': 1.4 million workers trapped in insecure jobs are stuck in precarious rented homes

Millions of Brits think their jobs are 'meaningless.' Could a four-day working work week fix that?
Four-day working week

Millions of Brits think their jobs are 'meaningless.' Could a four-day working work week fix that?

'What are we going to do?': Misery for commuters as train strikes continue
Train strikes

'What are we going to do?': Misery for commuters as train strikes continue

British farmers demand universal basic income to prevent bankruptcy in wake of Brexit
Farmer mental health
Universal Basic Income

British farmers demand universal basic income to prevent bankruptcy in wake of Brexit

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know