Midwives walk out in pay dispute
Midwives in Northern Ireland have staged a four-hour strike amid a long-running pay dispute with the Stormont Executive.
Members of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) in the region are angry that a 1% pay rise obtained by colleagues elsewhere in the UK has not been given to them.
It is the first time RCM midwives in Northern Ireland have staged a strike in the trade union's 134-year history.
The walkout lasted from 8am to 12pm.
Midwives staffed maternity units on a bank holiday level of cover during the action to ensure services were maintained.
Other forms of industrial action will be staged over the next week, starting tomorrow.
The RCM said its members would only work overtime over the next seven days if they are paid for it, and will take all the breaks they are entitled to.
While recent pay issues in England, Wales and Scotland have been resolved, with most NHS staff receiving a 1% increase, there was no such deal in Northern Ireland.
Breedagh Hughes, RCM director in Northern Ireland, said the Stormont Executive had to implement in full a recommendation for a 1% increase from the NHS Pay Review Body.
"This is not a step that our midwife and maternity support worker members take lightly," she said.
"They have been treated shoddily by the Executive and employers, who have left them with no alternative but to make a stand.
"Politicians wonder why the public does not afford them more respect when they deny a very modest pay award to hard-working NHS staff."
The mood was upbeat at the picket line outside the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, with midwives cheering and waving flags as passing motorists honked their horns.
Midwife Julie Gough said she and her co-workers were not asking for anything other than what Great Britain midwives had received.
"The protest today is to get our 1% pay rise," she said.
"All the other midwives throughout the UK have got 1% - in Scotland, England and Wales. We think we deserve it here as much as everyone else."
The protest action comes days after Stormont's health minister Jim Wells announced his resignation amid a controversy over anti-gay comments.
Mr Wells will leave office next month. His successor has yet to be appointed.
A spokeswoman from Stormont's department of health claimed midwives had not been prepared to discuss proposals for a pay deal this year.
She said midwives had obtained what colleagues in England had. The RCM disputed that claim, insisting only some staff had received a 1% rise and that it was only temporary.
The spokeswoman said: "The department respects the right of trade union members to take part in industrial action, but is disappointed that this further industrial action is being taken.
"Without question our midwives in NI provide excellent care to mothers and their families. However, there is ongoing pressure within our health and social care system and there is a very difficult financial year ahead with hard decisions about the provision of health and social care services."
Radiographers in Northern Ireland also took part in the four-hour walkout.
Society of Radiographers representative Paul Moloney explained the reason for taking action.
He said: "We believe that, by co-ordinating with the RCM, we have the opportunity to send an extremely powerful message to politicians that healthcare professionals are not prepared to accept the continuing pay freeze in Northern Ireland, when colleagues from other countries have received the modest 1% increase that has enabled the pay dispute to be resolved elsewhere."