Public sector pay needs long-term fix – The Irish News view

Fair wages for workers is long overdue; our public services now need sustainable funding for the future

Public sector workers during a strike in Belfast in January
Public sector workers took part in a general strike over pay in January (Liam McBurney/PA)

Among the more painful consequences of the DUP’s pointless Stormont boycott was the anger and frustration it caused hard-pressed public sector workers.

As they watched the value of their pay decline in real terms amidst the soaring cost of living and high inflation, MLAs continued to be paid for not doing their jobs. Secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris, meanwhile, was content for workers to be treated as pawns in the puerile drama between the DUP and the British government; shame on them both.

The DUP says it deigned to go back to Stormont because its NI protocol demands had been met – something not even everyone in the DUP believes.

However, only a strange political party would not be alarmed by the head of steam starting to build around public sector industrial action, especially when Mr Heaton-Harris said that money was available to address outstanding pay awards if only the DUP would go back to work.

If last month’s general strike, or the prospect of further action, wasn’t a factor in persuading the DUP to withdraw its veto, then it should have been. Around 150,000 workers from our public services were involved; their picket lines deeper and more numerous than the feeble protests against the ‘Donaldson deal’ from unionism’s antediluvian fringes.

They will continue to gripe and groan while the world moves on. That includes the new executive, which made fair pay for public workers a priority from day one.

We have now seen what that means; in its most significant announcement yet, a total of £688 million has been allocated to departments for pay rises.

It will be a relief to thousands of workers to know that they should soon be getting better pay. Negotiations between departments and trade unions should be conducted with urgency so that wages are boosted as soon as possible.

Caution is needed, however. The funds cover only this financial year, and ministers will have to decide how to meet the improved pay levels from April.

This is why it is vital that negotiations continue between Stormont and Westminster about the north’s budget, including around the prospect of additional revenue-raising measures..

We need public services that are sustainably funded year after year, and that means paying fair wages to those who care for us when we are ill, who teach our children and who mend roads. Until then, we are merely postponing more pay problems.