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Northern Ireland: Nurses to join January mass pay strike

Nurses and midwives will be among public sector workers taking part in a day of industrial action in Northern Ireland on 18 January 2024 in protest of the ongoing lack of a pay deal.

The “generalised day of action” will involve most public sector unions including Unison and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).

“A worker’s pay is not some bauble to be dangled in a political negotiation”

Gerry Murphy

Unison and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) together represent most nurses in the country.

RCN Northern Ireland is not taking part in the 18 January action but said further strikes from its members were possible.

The day of action, which falls on a Thursday, is being overseen by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and at least 12 unions are due to take part.

It comes as Health and Social Care (HSC) staff in Northern Ireland are still without a pay award for 2023-24, despite their counterparts in the other UK countries receiving one.

The disparity means nurses in Northern Ireland are the lowest paid in the UK when compared with other public sector nurses. 

Progress on a pay deal has been hampered by the lack of a fully-functioning Northern Ireland executive and assembly, which has been the case since early 2022.

The Democratic Unionist Party has been boycotting Stormont in defiance of post-Brexit policies affecting Northern Ireland.

Talks have been held recently between the UK Government and Northern Ireland political parties to try and find a way forward.

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Northern Ireland secretary at Westminster, Chris Heaton-Harris, has offered a financial package for Northern Ireland that will cover a public sector pay deal, but it will only be provided if Stormont is reformed.

However, it is looking unlikely that the devolved government will be back up and running before Christmas.

Announcing the strike action, Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy said: “Workers in Northern Ireland cannot be held hostage by this process any longer.

“The secretary of state has accepted that public sector pay needs to be settled and has admitted that he has the money to settle it.

“A worker’s pay is not some bauble to be dangled in a political negotiation. This money must be made available to settle this dispute now.”

While he described the financial package as “necessary”, Mr Murphy said it was unlikely to be sufficient.

“We want to see the restoration of the [Northern Ireland] executive so that we can begin to bring some stability to public services here,” he added.

“In the absence of any movement on these issues, trade unions in Northern Ireland have no option but to intensify our programme of industrial action.”

Unison Northern Ireland confirmed that its health members were joining the action on 18 January and that nurses would be among them.

John Patrick Clayton, policy officer for Unison Northern Ireland, told Nursing Times: “Unison nurses, like all other health and social care workers in Northern Ireland, have been struggling in the cost-of-living crisis.

“They have seen a pay award delivered for colleagues across England, Scotland and Wales and are deeply frustrated at the lack of pay parity.”

He noted that nurses in Northern Ireland had secured a commitment for pay parity in 2020 as part of a deal that ended strike action at that time.

“For these workers to face another Christmas without a pay rise is completely unacceptable,” Mr Clayton added.

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“The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has acknowledged that pay issues need to be resolved and that there is funding available for this purpose.

“He cannot delay in making that funding available.

“Nurses and all other health and social care workers have waited long enough.”

RCN Northern Ireland will not be participating in the day of action on 18 January.

However, RCN Northern Ireland director Rita Devlin said it still had a mandate to strike and that further action by its members in the future was an “option”.

She told Nursing Times: “The RCN in Northern Ireland has a continuing mandate for strike action over pay and we are in constant dialogue with our members over our campaign for pay parity and the immediate need to implement a pay award for 2023-24.

“No midwife wants to take strike action, but our patience has run out”

Karen Murray

“This includes the option of taking further strike action if our members decide to do so.”

Meanwhile, midwives and midwifery support workers from the RCM will be taking to the picket lines at all five HSC trusts between 8am and 12noon on 18 January.

Karen Murray, RCM director for Northern Ireland, said her members were “overstretched”, morale was low and that there was “palpable frustration” over the absence of a pay deal going into 2024.

She added: “The RCM had been hopeful that the executive would be reinstated by now, and that we could have worked towards a resolution on pay before Christmas. Unfortunately, this has not happened.

“Our members have been more than patient, seeing their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and England getting pay uplifts while their own stands still.

“No midwife wants to take strike action, but our patience has run out.”

Other unions that have declared industrial action for 18 January include:

  • GMB
  • Society of Radiographers
  • National Association of Head Teachers
  • Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance
  • Unite
  • NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union
  • Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
  • Charted Society of Physiotherapists
  • Ulster Teachers’ Union
  • British Dietetic Association
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A spokesperson for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said strike action in HSC services on 18 January would impact patient care but added that a pay offer was not possible within its current budget for 2023-24.

They said: “The department entirely understands the scale of the frustration among health and care staff about pay.

“As we have stated, the 2023-24 health budget provided no scope for a pay offer to be tabled for this year. This is not a sustainable situation.

“The department continues to do all it can to be able to make a fair pay offer to health and social care staff.

“We are clear that industrial action in January will inevitably impact on patient care. Services will already be under severe stress at this time due to winter-related pressures.”

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office at the UK Government said the “generous” offer made to the Northern Irish parties by Mr Heaton-Harris was worth more than £3bn, including up to £584m for public sector pay.

“The secretary of state has expressed his disappointment that there will not be a new executive up and running to take up this offer and deliver it for the people of Northern Ireland before Christmas,” they added.

“However, this package is on the table and will remain there, available on day one of an incoming Northern Ireland Executive to take up.

“It is now for the [Northern Ireland] parties to come together, restore the executive and begin to address the challenges facing the people of Northern Ireland, including public sector pay.”

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