Editorial: Urgent resolution needed in health dispute

Yesterday’s launch of industrial action by health care workers is both understandable and regrettable.

With inflation running at 11 per cent, it is understandable that those in the health service should seek a pay rise which reflects the increasing cost of living.

However, it is regrettable that the issue has not been resolved before now, particularly in view of the disruption which industrial action will cause to patients.

The action by members of the two largest health trade unions, Nipsa and Unison, does not immediately involve an all-out strike. However, Unison will strike for one day next Monday. In a separate dispute, nurses will strike on December 15 and 20.

The combined result of these actions is that an already overstretched health service will be close to breaking point.

The unions have set out their case for a pay increase. However, there has been little by way of a government counter-argument, or even an elementary explanation of its position. The reason, of course, is that we have no government.

The DUP’s continued boycott of the assembly means that there are no locally elected politicians to take decisions. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the DUP to justify its absence from government in view of the growing crisis in the health service.

In what might be seen as a statement of strategic impotence, the Department of Health claimed it would work to protect critical services as much as possible, but that there would be an impact on patient care.

Without a locally elected health minister, political and moral responsibility to resolve these disputes rests firmly with the secretary of state. His failure to intervene can only be interpreted as an unwillingness to address the issue of fair pay for health workers, who are trying to deliver a service to the many thousands seeking medical treatment.

By continuing to ignore current and upcoming disputes, he too is effectively absenting himself from carrying out his responsibilities.

The tangible absence of local politicians from Stormont and the more subtle absence of British politicians from Stormont House, suggests that there is little political will to resolve the current industrial action.

This policy of disengagement must end now. Government needs to invite the unions to sit around the table to hammer out a settlement. The alternative is too daunting to consider.