Belfast Telegraph

Mass strike against spending cuts

Thousands of public sector workers have staged a mass strike in Northern Ireland to protest against spending cuts.

Buses and trains have been cancelled, many schools have closed and medical appointments have been postponed due to the 24-hour action.

One of the largest events was in Belfast where train drivers, nurses, teachers and civil servants, who had been manning picket lines since the early hours, packed into the city centre to show their opposition to austerity measures.

Organisers claimed 8,500 took part in the demonstration and the enthusiastic crowd was whipped up as trade union leaders repeatedly slammed the governments at Westminster and Stormont.

Brian Campfield, general secretary of NIPSA, the largest public sector union, hailed the massive response to the strike.

He said: "The thousands of workers who participated in today's strikes and protests across Northern Ireland have sent a very clear message to the Northern Ireland political parties and leaders that they will not accept the decimation of our public services and jobs."

The strike has been marked by an angry row between ambulance workers and management after bosses activated emergency protocols late last night to prevent crews joining the walkout.

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) declared a "major incident" in response to the number of staff threatening to take industrial action, claiming that cities like Belfast and Londonderry would have been left without any ambulance cover.

The move, which compelled staff to turn up for work, has been condemned by unions as "cynical".

The NIAS had reached an initial agreement with trade unions with the aim of providing cover for only emergencies throughout today, but the service declared the incident after it said it had been "inundated" with calls from staff saying they would not be working.

Unions have insisted the situation did not warrant the declaration of a major incident.

Patricia McKeown, Unison regional secretary, accused the NIAS of engaging in a "strike-breaking manoeuvre" which was a "complete breach of faith".

"Its decision to declare a major incident across the whole of Northern Ireland two hours in advance of strike action is provocative," she said.

"It is not a smart move if that was the intention. Instead it is likely to provoke further action.

"There are no indications that such a major incident exists. This is strike breaking and intimidation."

Kevin McAdam, Unite national officer, said: "The trade unions know now the facts on the ground: that there was no major incident, rather there was an inability and unwillingness for management to effectively manage the strike.

"We are unhappy and disgusted by the NIAS cynically exploiting this part of the emergency cover understanding to thwart the industrial action."

But the NIAS said that without taking the step, cities and towns including Belfast, Londonderry, Omagh, Enniskillen and Lisburn would have been without ambulance cover from midnight.

NIAS spokesman John McPoland said: "NIAS has exhausted all alternative contingency options and lives would be at risk if we allowed the situation to deteriorate further."

Urgent talks between trade unions and NIAS failed to resolve the impasse.

In a statement issued this afternoon Mr McPoland said: "In the absence of a concrete commitment from enough staff required to sustain a safe service, the Trust has taken the decision to keep the major incident in place."

Union leaders have warned that today's action will be the biggest in many years.

Workers are angry at Stormont budgets that have cut millions of pounds from public spending; a voluntary redundancy scheme to reduce the Civil Service by 20,000; and a proposed cut in corporation tax in Northern Ireland that would see millions shaved off public finances to fund a tax incentive for businesses.

Public transport services across Northern Ireland have been cancelled. Operator Translink has been unable to run any buses or trains and the police have given motorists permission to use many bus lanes in an attempt to avoid traffic logjams.

Members of the Unison, Unite, Nipsa, INTO and GMB unions working in health, education, the Civil Service, transport and a range of other public services are striking.

The fate of the redundancy scheme, next year's Stormont budget and the devolution of corporation tax powers from Westminster to Belfast are shrouded in uncertainty after a political row over welfare reform threatened the Stormont House Agreement in which those proposals were included.

Courts were also affected as a result of the strike with dozens of hearings including appeals, family proceedings, crown business, inquests, extraditions and tribunals disrupted or cancelled.

Some defendants who would have been released today were not processed, according to Nipsa which represents Courts Service staff.

Ryan McKinney said: "Five courthouses are earmarked for closure under the Northern Ireland Executive's austerity budget yet we see today that the overstretched Court Service is at full capacity.

"The huge response to Nipsa's call for strike action is clear evidence that staff are angry that the DoJ (Department of Justice) Ministers 'faster fairer justice' mantra is empty rhetoric.

"Our members are genuinely committed to providing a decent justice system and are prepared to take further strike action alongside other public sector unions to secure it".

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