Trade union leaders have warned of further strike action in the weeks ahead unless Chris Heaton-Harris releases funds to settle public sector pay disputes.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy said nurses, teachers, bus drivers and other public sector workers would continue to strive for wage levels that matched their counterparts in Britain.
Speaking after addressing a rally supporting striking workers in Belfast city centre on Thursday, he told The Irish News: “It’s quite clear that public sector workers’ demand for fair pay is not going away.
“If we don’t receive a fair and decent pay offer it’s likely further action will be taken.”
Up to 150,000 workers joined Thursday’s mass walkout, said to be the biggest general strike for decades.
In the absence of a Stormont executive, the workers’ anger is directed at the secretary of state, who before Christmas presented a financial package for the restoration of devolution that earmarked £600m to resolve a number of public sector pay disputes.
Mr Heaton-Harris insists the funds are conditional on the institutions returning but the DUP is refusing to go back into government due its concerns over the Irish Sea border.
The secretary of state is expected to table fresh legislation deferring an assembly election at Westminster in the coming days after the expiry at midnight on Thursday of the latest legal deadline for restoring power-sharing.
Trade unions and Stormont’s parties argue that the funds for resolving the public sector pay disputes should be decoupled from the rest of package – a call so far rejected by Mr Heaton-Harris.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson last night said the secretary of state was “fully focused on facilitating the return of the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible”.
Joining pickets in Magherafelt, Co Derry on Thursday, Sinn Féin first minister designate Michelle O’Neill said she would do “everything to get this money released”.
“It’s really important that the British government stops dangling the carrot that was put on the table before Christmas and gets on with paying that money,” she said.
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said the strikers’ message needed to be heard “loud and clear by both the DUP and the secretary of state”.
“The DUP cannot be let off the hook for their role in denying staff their money and if they continue to boycott Stormont the British government must step in and do the right thing,” he said.