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Make nurse pay priority in Stormont return, unions urge

Health unions in Northern Ireland have called on the UK Government to release funding for nurses’ pay rises “without delay”, as Stormont is set to be restored in the coming days.

Last night, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced that it backed a deal with Westminster to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, ending its 23-month boycott of Stormont.

“We urge the executive, once power sharing has been restored, to find a resolution to this pay dispute urgently”

Karen Murray

The party had been blocking the Northern Ireland assembly and executive due to concerns about post-Brexit trade agreements.

The deal, which the DUP has said addresses concerns over the trade barriers, is set to be published in full on Wednesday, with the legislation to finalise the agreement expected on Thursday.

This means that the Northern Ireland assembly could be called as early as Friday or Saturday this week.

After almost two years of political instability, one of the top priorities for incoming ministers will be resolving the public sector pay dispute in the country.

It comes as nurses and other public sector workers in Northern Ireland are still without a pay deal for 2023-24, or an improved offer for 2022-23, due to the political impasse.

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Nurses were among thousands of workers who staged a mass walkout earlier this month, demanding pay parity with their colleagues in England.

The UK Government had promised a financial package worth over £3bn, including money for a public sector pay deal, if the Northern Ireland parties restored Stormont.

Now that the DUP has agreed to return to government, politicians and health unions alike have urged for this funding to be released without delay.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP party leader, said that he had pressed for the release of the money to ensure public sector workers receive a pay award.

“It would be a measure of goodwill if the government were to release that funding,” he told Good Morning Ulster today.

Meanwhile, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which led the mass public sector strike earlier this month, said striking workers would welcome the DUP’s return to the Northern Ireland executive.

ICTU assistant general secretary, Gerry Murphy, said: “This means the secretary of state must now deliver on his promise and unlock the financial package he has withheld from the Northern Ireland Department of Finance.

“Talks between trade unions and public sector employers must begin immediately so workers can reap the rewards of their principled resistance to these shameful political games.”

“I am pleased that the DUP have agreed to accept the package of measures that the UK Government has put forward”

Chris Heaton-Harris

Mr Murphy added that, once the pay issues in Northern Ireland have been resolved, trade unions expected to “contribute to the policy programme” of the restored legislative assembly and executive.

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Also responding, the head of bargaining and representation at Unison in Northern Ireland, Anne Speed, told Nursing Times that the funding for public sector pay must be released “without delay”.

She said: “A return of the institutions at Stormont should allow the release of this funding, which is needed to make progress in delivering a decent pay award for our members across health and social care, restoring the link to pay parity.

“Whilst we await developments over the coming days with regards to the possible establishment of a new executive, we would urge all parties to recognise that an immediate priority must be engagement with unions representing health and social care workers.”

The Royal College of Midwives, whose members went on strike earlier this month, welcomed the news of Stormont’s return and called for pay to be top of agenda for incoming ministers.

RCM Northern Ireland director Karen Murray said: “We know there has been an agreed budget and additional funding for public sector pay since December.

“That money would make a huge difference to our members who have faced the cost-of-living crisis without any pay award for far too long.

“We urge the executive, once power sharing has been restored, to find a resolution to this pay dispute urgently.”

Responding to the DUP’s announcement, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, said: “I am pleased that the DUP have agreed to accept the package of measures that the UK Government has put forward and as a result they are ready to return to the Northern Ireland assembly and nominate representatives to the Northern Ireland executive.

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“Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said this is subject to the binding commitments between the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Government – I can confirm that we will stick to this agreement.

“I now believe that all the conditions are in place for the assembly to return, the parties entitled to form an executive are meeting today to discuss these matters and I hope to be able to finalise this deal with the political parties as soon as possible.”

The Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland has been contacted for comment.

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