Northern Ireland news

NI health workers may return to picket line in dispute over pay, unions claim

Union workers protest outside the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast today. Picture by Hugh Russell
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Trade unions have warned that health workers in Northern Ireland could be forced to strike once again because of a deepening row over pay.

Union members from Unite, Unison, Nipsa, BMA and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) held protests outside hospitals in Belfast during their lunch break on Wednesday, where they demanded an inflation-proofed pay increase.

One senior union official described the protests as an “initial warning” to politicians, and said there could be a repeat of 2019 when health staff in Northern Ireland took to the picket line.

Earlier this year, an independent review body recommended that health service staff in the UK should be awarded a pay increase of £1,400 for 2022/23.

There is a separate recommendation of a 4.5% increase for doctors and dentists.

But health unions have signalled their discontent over the offers.

Health Minister Robin Swann has previously warned that the pay increases could not be implemented without an agreed Stormont budget.

Mr Swann said he had accepted the recommendations made by pay review bodies but was unable to move forward with them in the absence of a functioning Executive.

The DUP has blocked the formation of an Executive as part of its protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

Dozens of health staff gathered outside the gates of the Royal Victoria, Mater and City hospitals in Belfast holding banners and flags.

Unite regional officer for health and lead negotiator for the health trade unions, Kevin McAdam, said: “This is raw feelings from the workers.

“They have had two-and-a-half years of keeping the country on its feet, doing what’s needed, and they haven’t been found wanting.

“Now they want a pay rise which meets their needs, that gives them the money to pay their bills.

“This is an initial warning. There has been no formal action taken, we are currently balloting on a consultative basis to suss out what our members feel, but this is a spontaneous meeting to say we want to show our disappointment at what has been offered thus far.”

Mr McAdam said that during the last period of Stormont suspension, it was a strike by health workers which contributed to the return of the powersharing institutions.

He said: “2019 could happen again.

“We don’t want it to and we didn’t want it then, but it will be in the hands of the politicians. If the money’s right, we’ll be in work.

“Not having an Executive does mean the paltry award that has been offered elsewhere isn’t even being offered here but we are saying now, that award is not enough, before you come to us with your final offer, revise it.

“History will tell you that the last health service strike brought the government into being here.

“We did it before, maybe we have to do it again.”

The DUP has blocked the formation of a powersharing Executive as part of its protest against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Denise Kelly, chair of the national RCN trade union committee, said the unions were sending out a message that “enough is enough”.

She said: “All trade unions have to stand together, show solidarity and demand a fair and meaningful pay rise for all members.

“We need this to defend our members and to ensure that we have got safe staffing, to provide safe and effective care to our patients in the NHS.

“Today is the day we defend the NHS. Today is to show our strength of feeling.”

She added: “Because we have got no Executive in Northern Ireland we aren’t going to have any pay award this year which is completely unacceptable.

“Why should we have pay disparity from the rest of the UK? Our workers do the same job and we should be paid fairly.

“Our Executive need to get back together, they need to come to the bargaining table with our trade unions and they need to pay our workers fairly.”

Northern Ireland news