Belfast Telegraph

Public sector strike: carnival atmosphere as workers fire opening salvo in fight against spending cuts

By Chris Kilpatrick

The mood was jovial but the message one of defiance.

Having made their way from picket lines across Belfast, strikers and their supporters gathered in Writers' Square from noon.

Among them hundreds of off-duty firefighters who had turned out to support those involved in the industrial action.

There was a carnival atmosphere as the huge crowd set off, making its way along Royal Avenue, Samba music blaring and whistles sounding throughout.

In the spring sunshine, shoppers and workers gathered on either side of the road to watch the strikers, many bursting into spontaneous rounds of applause.

Each union was represented with flags and banners, turning City Hall into a sea of colour when participants converged.

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 stood shoulder to shoulder.

"Shame on you," was the chant directed at Stormont's politicians.

The crowd also cheered loudly as a speaker vowed: "This is going to go on until we defeat them."

A huge banner read Stop The Stormont House Agreement.

It had appeared to have broken the political deadlock but was firmly in the sights of strikers yesterday.

Backers of the Agreement argue it can rebalance the economy's heavy dependence on public subsidy to encourage the growth of businesses.

Protesters were told big business would benefit from a corporation tax cut but claimed there would be no guarantees of new jobs.

Jimmy Kelly, the head of the union Unite in Ireland, which covers healthcare workers, said: "We do not accept blaming the Tories is a justification for administering these cuts.

"Our local political leaders are joined at the hip in their demand for the power to slash corporation tax rates through decimating funding for public services by, at the very least, a further £325m a year.

"All the Stormont parties are agreed on devastating cuts to public services to fund a race to the bottom with places like the British Virgin Islands for global tax haven status."

Mr Kelly said Stormont politicians could not grow the economy by cutting public services.

"Austerity will devastate Northern Ireland's economy - an economy underpinned by public sector consumption.

"Austerity will only exacerbate sectarian divisions, pitting one community against the other in a desperate contest for resources."

The crowd of thousands also showed their support for pledges for further demonstrations in the coming months.

This, they were told, was only the beginning.

"We are off our knees and we will stay off our knees," the crowd was told. "We are not going away. They should be afraid."

So what was the mood on the streets? We gauge public opinion

By David Young and Chris Kilpatrick

Colette McKinney: "We're here as we totally disagree with the cuts across the country. We fear for our jobs. We work in the education sector and it's always the lowest paid workers."

West Belfast woman Mary Curley, who was visiting her husband in the Mater's intensive care unit, said: "The strike has had no effect that I can see."

Margaret McCabe: "I work in a school but the cuts will affect everything. The politicians need to get their heads together and do something about it."

Michelle Davidson: "There are many reasons for being out today. Workers are exhausted mentally and physically already."

Jean Adams was visiting a sick relative at the City Hospital. "I was very concerned about the reduced numbers of nursing staff on duty," she said.

Mary Smith: "I've come from Dublin to support this. I'm a socialist and I see fantastic potential in this strike to unite the two communities in the north against cuts which affect all."

Sean Burns: "I came out to support my teachers as they are facing massive redundancies. I'm here to fight for not only my future but for the generations to come. It's a great turnout and the mood is so positive."

Angela Irvine, who was visiting a relative in the Mater's intensive care unit, paid tribute to the staff who had stayed on duty through the strike. "The ICU nurses have been amazing," she said.

Gary McCorkindale: "This is a momentous occasion but it's not the end, it has to be the start of a movement."

Thomas Moore: "We're here because the Stormont House Agreement proves those at Stormont don't care about the working class people. "

Emma Quinn: "We're here to show solidarity against austerity cuts. People should come together on a class basis. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been implementing Tory cuts, that's what people have been saying."

Jim Quinn: "We're here to show our support for public services and show concern for budget cuts coming our way as well."

Claire McDonnell: "We need to protect our schools, our health service. These cuts will affect each individual person."

Naomi, from west Belfast, was an inpatient at the Mater, being treated for fluid on the brain. She didn't want to give her surname. "It's taking staff longer to get to you, say if you need pain relief." Referring to the pickets, she said: "Them being out there is affecting everybody. You're not getting the help you're supposed to be getting."

Martin Jordan, from Londonderry's Waterside area, is an inpatient at the City Hospital. He needs a special diet as he has neck cancer. He said: "The strike's had no impact on the quality of my medical treatment."

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