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Midwives join nurses on Northern Ireland picket lines

Midwives have joined nurses and other health staff in Northern Ireland on the picket lines today, as public sector strikes over pay in the country escalate further.

Members of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) are walking out from 8am until 4pm, joining striking health workers in Unison who downed tools on Thursday, over the ongoing lack of a pay deal.

“We’re frustrated as professionals, but also as citizens”

Karen Murray

Health workers in the country are still yet to be offered a pay deal for the 2023-24 financial year, nor have they been offered any improvements for 2022-23.

Meanwhile, midwives in England, Scotland and Wales have all received pay increases after successful industrial action.

The disparity has come about due to budget and political constraints in Northern Ireland, as there remains no functioning executive in the country.

The budget for 2023-24 was instead set by UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton, but the Northern Ireland Department of Health said it was not enough to provide a pay offer for health workers.

RCM Northern Ireland director Karen Murray, speaking from the picket lines this morning, described the pay disparity as “grossly unfair”.

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She told Nursing Times: “All maternity services are feeling the pressure, all the recruitment and conditions issues exist as well as pay.

“Our members feel very undervalued, undermined and ignored.”

Midwives at a picket line during RCM strikes in Northern Ireland, 22 September 2023

‘Pushing 4 pay parity’ – midwives on the picket line

Strike action scheduled for April was put on pause by the RCM after Mr Heaton promised talks on pay.

However, midwifery and nursing staff in Northern Ireland remain the lowest paid across the UK compared with Agenda for Change counterparts.

Ms Murray said the situation was “incredibly frustrating”, both professionally and personally.

“We’ve been told there is not sufficient money to settle the pay dispute,” she said.

“We’re frustrated as professionals, but also as citizens. We’re talking about health today, but an absence of government impacts all public services; there are disputes across higher and further education.

“There are disputes across the board due to a lack of governance. Talks [earlier this year with Mr Heaton] went nowhere.”

Ms Murray said she was “not necessarily” optimistic that a new pay deal was forthcoming, describing the political situation as “difficult” in Northern Ireland.

She continued: “I have to be positive. It’s very unfair that the midwives and midwifery support workers, and the women they care for, are being used politically in this way.

“The picket line is not where they should be.”

Midwifery staff today join members of public sector union Unison on the picket lines.

Nursing and other healthcare staff in Unison went out from Thursday, 21 September for a 48-hour strike over the same pay issue.

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Ms Murray said there was a shared feeling among health workers in Northern Ireland that the current crisis echoed 2019, when strikes took place over pay disparity.

“This sort of action happened in 2019-20,” she told Nursing Times.

“At that stage we did manage to achieve pay parity with England and Wales but in three years we’re back where we started.

“But the mood [on the picket line] is very upbeat, I’m proud. This is not where midwives sit, it’s not in their DNA to take strike action. But the positivity is there alongside the frustration and the anger.

Midwives at a picket line during RCM strikes in Northern Ireland, 22 September 2023

RCM members hold flags during the strikes on 22 September 2023

“It’s been a hugely proud day for me. They’d prefer not to be there, they’d prefer to be providing care but at some point they have to do something.”

Ms Murray said public support – as well as support from employers – for the strikes had been “huge” so far.

The RCM director had visited Ulster Hospital earlier in the morning, and was touring around several picket lines.

Ms Murray said she was pleased that senior trust members spoke with midwifery staff and offered support for their dispute.

Yesterday, on the first day of the Unison strikes, Ms Murray spoke about “sorrow” felt among the midwifery workforce at having to strike.

She said: “What we are fighting for here is safety and fairness. The safety of our maternity services is reliant on midwives and [midwifery support workers], but if we don’t pay them fairly, they will leave.

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“It’s as simple and as stark as that – and we’re already seeing it happen. Politicians can stem that tide – and they need to do it now.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said they understood the “frustration” felt by midwifery and other healthcare staff over the lack of pay parity with the rest of the UK.

They said: “In setting out the implications of the budget it received for 2023/24, [we] said in May that [we were] facing an ‘impossible position’ and that decisions are required that are not in the best interests of the health and social care system.

“That remains the case today. As has been previously stated, the current budgetary constraints mean that matching the English pay offer for Agenda for Change health and social care staff would require large scale cuts on an unprecedented scale, with severe and lasting implications for services.

“That would be outside the scope of our decision making powers. The department continues to look for ways to address the pay challenge.”

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