Striking classroom assistants were last night urged to remain united in the weeks ahead to ensure the best deal is secured for children and staff at schools in Northern Ireland.
Hundreds of disgruntled classroom assistants assembled at a rally at Custom House Square yesterday where chair of the SEELB branch of trade union Nipsa, Janette Murdock, warned that there will be attempts made to divide union members as negotiations continue.
However, she said that the future of classroom assistants and the children they work with depends on the outcome of the current industrial action.
Almost 3,000 Nipsa members picketed schools across Northern Ireland during their one-day walk-out yesterday and the Education Minister has been warned that she must make the issue a priority if she wants to find a resolution to the dispute.
Education committee member Basil McCrea said he believed Caitriona Ruane has allowed the situation to get out of control: "I can't see how the Minister can get this sorted out. I know she was in talks on Tuesday night but unless she bridges the gap nothing is going to come out of the negotiations."
Mr McCrea was speaking after fellow education committee member and Sinn Fein MLA Paul Butler welcomed action by Ms Ruane in the dispute.
"It's absolutely outrageous that Paul Butler should try to rewrite history and say things are going well when they are quite clearly not," he added.
Yesterday's strike is the latest twist in the longest-running pay dispute in Northern Ireland and, although the majority of special schools refused to officially close their doors, without qualified staff they could not meet health and safety requirements so parents were advised to keep their children at home.
Up to 7,000 staff remain caught up in a 13-year battle over pay and grading for classroom assistants.
As Nipsa members across the province took to the streets, Ms Ruane expressed confidence that the deadlock can be broken before the planned three-day strike next week.
However, speaking at the rally in Belfast, Ms Murdock told members: " Don't be surprised that an offer might come to the table. It will be a terrible offer.
"Believe me, after it is rejected there will be another offer and it will be slightly better and it will try and divide classroom assistants but we must not let that happen," she added.
"For years we have stuck together through thick and thin and that will not change now. Nipsa will be behind us. We will not sell classroom assistants down the river. There will not be negotiations behind closed doors that we don't hear about.
"Classroom assistants are not looking for anything special. We are asking for the same treatment as everyone else. Unfortunately, the Boards ran into financial difficulties and we are having to pay the price."
She continued: "Day in, day out, we go the extra mile. We do more than our job description. It's not just a job, we take it seriously. We are professional staff. We care about the job, we care about the children and we are prepared to fight and we are prepared to fight hard for this."