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Union warns of crisis as discontent spreads across Northern Ireland public sector

Unprecedented moves: Owen Reidy
Unprecedented moves: Owen Reidy
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland is facing a winter of discontent as public service unions demand better pay and conditions for members.

Thousands of Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members are taking part in further industrial action today and tomorrow in a fight for pay parity with their colleagues in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, strikes by Unison members are ongoing, with the disruption threatening to bring the health service to its knees.

It comes after strike action by university staff last month and an ongoing work-to-rule policy by teachers at schools across Northern Ireland.

Staff at primary and secondary schools have been involved in industrial action short of strike, including refusing to co-operate in inspections and key stage assessments, for a number of years.

ICTU assistant general secretary Owen Reidy has now warned that industrial action by other public service unions may be on the horizon.

Mr Reidy, who heads up ICTU - which represents over 200,000 workers across 24 unions in Northern Ireland - has written to the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, asking for a meeting to discuss the emerging crisis.

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He said: "We require the Secretary of State to pay his full attention to these matters, as time is a luxury we no longer have.

"Health workers are already taking unprecedented industrial action in certain trade unions, and other associations for health professionals are preparing to ballot their members in unions which have long eschewed strikes and action short of strikes, such as working-to-rule. Simply passing the buck between Stormont and Her Majesty's Treasury is no longer acceptable."

Mr Smith has insisted health here is a matter for a devolved government. At the end of last week, after the unions rejected a last chance financial offer from the Department of Health, Mr Smith offered to make himself available over the weekend.

However, it is understood there have been no further negotiations between the Department of Health and the health unions since talks broke down last Thursday.

Officials had offered an additional £28m to the unions in a bid to break the deadlock. However, it was rejected as it did not bring members pay into line with colleagues in the rest of the UK.

Speaking last night, ahead of the next phase of industrial action by the RCN, the organisation's Northern Ireland head of professional development, Rita Devlin, said: "It is important to remember nursing staff will be on duty as normal. However, they will be working strictly to their contracts which means finishing on time, taking contractual breaks and not doing additional non-nursing duties.

"Last week a number of members reported that last Tuesday was the first day in a long time they could remember feeling that they actually had the time to care for patients in the way they would like to every day. This in itself tells us why RCN members feel it is necessary to take this action in the first place."

The union is scheduled to stage walk outs on December 18 - the first time it has taken such action in its 103-year history.

Mr Reidy has said the crisis in the health service is not an isolated phenomenon, claiming the same pressures are building in schools and the Civil Service and have already erupted in the universities.

In his letter, he also called on Mr Smith to also take into account the end of mitigations to Universal Credit in March.

"Mr Smith needs to take cognisance of the looming cliff-edge facing thousands of people dependent on Universal Credit, which include substantial numbers of the working poor, and who face financial ruin after the mitigations negotiated under the Fresh Start Agreement expire at the end of March," he said.

"We in the trade union movement insist no worker is abandoned, and the promises about the ending of austerity are made in good faith, and are not additionally being held hostage to negotiations to restore Stormont.

"We look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State."

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