Chris Heaton-Harris has the power to stop the public sector strikes - but so does Jeffrey Donaldson

The Irish News view: It is disgraceful that workers and their pay have become pawns in the politicking between the NIO and DUP, a collision of lack of gumption and thranness that is harming us all

Protesters outside City Hall in Belfast during a trade union rally in support of striking workers
Following a series of public sector strikes last year, what has been described as the largest day of industrial action in Northern Ireland is planned for Thursday January 18 (Liam McBurney/PA)

As momentum builds for the massive public sector strike action planned for Thursday, the force and clarity of the unions’ message is in direct contrast to the feeble and confusing waffle drifting out of the DUP.

A wide range of trade unions, representing around 170,000 teachers, nurses, health, education and transport workers, police staff, civil servants and others, have grown so frustrated at the petty politicking around wages that they feel they have no option but to organise a generalised day of action.

Unusually for an industrial dispute, the government has not only already conceded the need for pay rises but also set aside the cash.

Yet it remains cruelly out of reach thanks to a stand-off between Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris - a collision of thranness and lack of gumption, with workers caught in the wreckage.

Mr Heaton-Harris says that £584 million of a £3.3 billion package he announced before Christmas is earmarked for pay claims, and insists it is for a restored Executive to sort out.

Reviving power-sharing is, of course, within the gift of the DUP. But Mr Donaldson says he won’t go back to Stormont until his demands about the NI Protocol have been met, and that in any case Mr Heaton-Harris has the power to implement the pay rises.

Trade unions are clear that it is Mr Heaton-Harris who should “do the decent thing”, as ICTU’s Gerry Murphy says.

It is nonetheless difficult to imagine that DUP representatives will get a rapturous reception as they tour the picket lines; if the DUP stopped its own form of strike action, the pay issue could indeed be resolved by locally elected ministers.

So too could progress be made on the mountain of problems piling up at Stormont.

The DUP’s reasons for boycotting devolution were always vague and ill thought out. Over the course of almost two years, they have become increasingly esoteric.

Little wonder NI Affairs Committee chair Sir Robert Buckland has appealed for “intellectual, cerebral unionism”; this garnered a predictably hostile response from the DUP’s intellectual, cerebral wing, while Sammy Wilson denounced Sir Robert as an “arrogant little pipsqueak”.

It is clear that it is internal tensions, and not the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and our public services, which are driving the DUP’s approach. If political talks next week don’t concentrate minds, perhaps the strike action will.