Healthcare crisis: Arlene Foster defends DUP decision to end pay parity
DUP leader Arlene Foster has defended the decision of one of her party's ministers to end pay parity between Northern Ireland healthcare workers and the rest of the UK.
Her comments come as healthcare workers across Northern Ireland take industrial action in a dispute over pay and staffing levels, demanding to be paid the same as their colleagues in the rest of the UK.
Trade union Unison accused politicians of not being willing to share power, but being willing to share blame.
The South Eastern Trust has warned of closures on Friday afternoon at its outpatient departments, including the Lagan Valley and Ulster hospitals, due to the industrial action.
Have you been impacted by the industrial action or are you on the picket line? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
On Thursday, the Department of Health made a last-ditch offer of an additional £28m for workers, bringing the total package to £79m, which trade unions rejected, branding it as falling "significantly short" of requirements.
For years healthcare workers across the UK were paid equally. In late 2014, however, this was ended by the then Health Minister, Jim Wells of the DUP, who stated he had to "exercise a degree of restraint" over pay.
DUP leader Arlene Foster explained the decision and said there is "enough blame to around" for all former members of the Executive.
"As I understand it, after five years of austerity, Jim Wells was confronted with a very limited budget, so he recommended that parity be broken," she told the BBC's The View programme.
"That was then implemented in the Northern Ireland budget and voted on by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly. That was later continued by Simon Hamilton and latterly by Michelle O'Neill."
In January 2016, DUP Health Minister Simon Hamilton was involved in a dispute with nurses after he offered them a one-off pay increase of 1%.
Nurses argued the increase should be added to salaries, as was the case in the rest of the UK.
"We were in the situation where the block grant and the money we were getting from Westminster was of such a nature that we had to have pay restrained at that particular point in time," Mrs Foster said.
"We were able to use our influence at Westminster, along with the Labour Party, to lift the pay gap on the mainland in September 2017, but because we didn't have an assembly we weren't able to replicate that here in Northern Ireland."
Mrs Foster said the Treasury would "look favourably" on a request by the future first and deputy first ministers for more funding to meet healthcare workers demands.
Richard Pengelly, the Department of Health's permanent secretary, said Thursday's offer was the "furthest I am able to go" in the absence of ministers.
Unison regional director Patricia McKeown hit out at the stance taken by politicians and said the health service and patients are being used as "bargaining chips" to force the return of Stormont.
"Health workers are out on picket lines, making sacrifices, the system is collapsing - that is what has brought them there," she said.
"Patients are at risk every day and have been for several years, not at least in the period of time since the DUP minister broke parity. I've heard the leader of the DUP confirm that. I am disgusted that there is no willingness to share power, but a great deal of willingness to share blame."
Meanwhile, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has said he is confident the institutions will be restored.
“I believe we will have the power sharing back in place. We will do that as quickly as the basis for it can be established and we will tackle these issues, like health, urgently," he said.
“We had a deal with the DUP in February 2018 which they walked away from. I know for a fact that Mary Lou (McDonald) and Michelle (O'Neill) have been trying to work with the DUP to get these neuralgic issues dealt with.
Belfast Telegraph Digital