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.”