Belfast Telegraph

Health strike: This is our issue, our problem and we can resolve it, says former minister

Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

A former Northern Ireland DUP health minister has called on politicians to own the healthcare strike, restore power sharing and give striking workers the pay parity they are asking for.

Sinn Fein, however, said they basis of the restoration of the Stormont institutions had to be long-lasting.

Around 15,000 healthcare workers staged a walkout across Northern Ireland bringing widespread disruption on Wednesday.

A last minute bid by the Northern Ireland parties to provide political cover for civil servants to take the decision failed.

The civil service has explained that the implications of enacting pay parity has far reaching and long term consequences for the Northern Ireland budget. A decision could also set a precedent for other sectors, such as education, therefore any decision would need a local administration to fully consider.

Have you been impacted by today's strike action? Contact our news team at digital.editorial@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

The DUP's Edwin Poots urged Sinn Fein to re-establish the Executive and act on pay parity for health care workers.

"Quite frankly this is our problem," he told BBC Radio Ulster, "this is our issue. We are capable of resolving it if we have the will and that is by re-establishing the Executive.

"For me health is the number one priority. It is not parades, it is not flags, it is not language, the issue here is that we have more than 300,000 people on the waiting list. The waiting list should never have gotten to that length."

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Former health minister Edwin Poots

He said there was no need to wait on restoring pay parity for healthcare workers and they could tackle all the issues in a restored Executive.

"We can re-establish the executive this week. We can have a health minister in place this week. We can decide to deal with the nurses pay parity issue this week, if they want to do it," he added.

Northern Ireland nurses on strike. 18/12/2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland nurses on strike. 18/12/2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland NHS workers at the Ulster Hospital in Belfast on Wednesday, December 18.
Nurses on strike at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital. 18/12/2019
About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Ulster Hospital in Belfast - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital - About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland have begun strike action in a dispute over pay and patient safety. 18/12/2019 Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press
Nurses are striking in a protest over pay and patient safety. Nurses and health care workers are pictured at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses take to the picket lines over pay and patient safety. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses take to the picket lines over pay and patient safety. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses take to the picket lines over pay and patient safety. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses take to the picket lines over pay and patient safety. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses take to the picket lines over pay and patient safety. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers on strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers on strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers on strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers on strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Nurses and health care workers on strike at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Health workers taking part in industrial action in Northern Ireland
Nurses and hospital staff on strike at midnight in the Ulster Hospital on December 18th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Nurses and hospital staff on strike at midnight in the Ulster Hospital on December 18th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Nurses and hospital staff on strike at midnight in the Ulster Hospital on December 18th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

He added: "I am interested in getting equality and parity for healthcare workers, in getting the rights of people who are in hospital in terms of getting waiting lists reduced and providing appropriate care with the appropriate number of staff.

"I wish Sinn Fein would have health as their number one priority, it was not even in their manifesto. They need to get off their high horse about Irish language and a series of other matters and put health as number one.

"We are committed and building to restoring Stormont and issues outstanding can be resolved in the next number of weeks or in a re-established Executive."

Sinn Fein's health spokesman Pat Sheehan said the matters around the political impasse had been "well rehearsed".  Mr Sheehan said there was consensus among the parties that the money could be found to resolve the dispute and it was in the "gift" of the secretary of state and the civil service to do so.

"At the end of the day there are no functioning institutions at the moment and it would be wrong to try and initiate a separate or independent talks process to resolve this dispute," he said.

"What happens if the talks end in failure?

"All the parties have said if talks are successful we will restore pay parity. Julian Smith and the civil service should find the extra money required. There is always money to fight wars, money to bail out the banks. Let's find the money for the health care workers and resolve this dispute now.

"The issues that led to the collapse of the institutions have been well rehearsed. What we need now is a credible and sustainable agreement that will ensure the institutions, when they are resurrected, they don't collapse again."

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Pat Sheehan

He added: "We need to resolve all the problems, there is not one single problem. Once we do that we can get the institutions up and running.

"What we need is a partnership government. People who are prepared to work on the basis of equality and that there is parity of esteem in the institutions.

"Even if the institutions were up and running in the morning. If we do not have the resources to deal with the problem in health and education we are going to create more problems down the road."

A number of MLAs joined workers on the picket lines.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said politicians should be embarrassed over the strike action taken.

"I know I am," he added.

"Let's stop the political games and sort it out."

UUP leader Steve Aiken said all parties wanted to deliver pay parity to health care workers and would deliver on it in a future executive. He appealed to the unions to call off their action on that basis.

However, he said he understood if there was scepticism about what the parties would agree to in the future.

"We asked the secretary of state to meet us so he would be able to back up what we were saying. So if we couldn't restore a NI Executive as soon as we can the secretary of state would be able to ensure pay parity went ahead.

"We all want to see pay parity."

Alliance leader Noami Long said she believed the Mr Smith saw leverage in health to force the parties back into sharing power.

"I can understand where he might think that," she added.

"Actually what is much, much more important is trying to get the right atmosphere in the talks to feel there is an achievement to be made.

"But also to say to the people we are serious about this and I can understand why they don't trust us... they have heard the same thing so many times in the last three years, but I think parties are trying to get this resolved, they want delivery."

Pat Cullen, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Nursing, said it was a sad day for every one of her members to take to the picket lines. It is the organisations first strike in its 103-year history.

She added: "There is not a single nurse wants to be here today.

"They want to be in caring for their patients, they want to be looking after their patients, but with 2,800 nurses missing from our system through vacancies that is not possible to do any longer.

"They have been doing this year on year, they have been trying their very best to provide safe care for patients, but now they say it is time to stand up and try and have their voice heard on behalf of patients in Northern Ireland.

"They have tolerated this for so long and they say today enough is enough and we need to see something change for patients."

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