A cost-of-living protest has been held at Stormont over “spiralling costs” in Northern Ireland, with a union umbrella group predicting an increase in pay claims being lodged over the coming weeks.
The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) said that this demonstration was the start of a six-month cost-of-living crisis campaign in the run-up to Christmas.
At noon on Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators assembled at the main gate to the Stormont Estate, and marched up to Parliament Buildings for the union-led demonstration.
A rally was held in front of Parliament Buildings, where people spoke about how the soaring cost of living is affecting workers and their families and called for the Stormont Executive to be restored to tackle the crisis.
Among the organisations represented at the protest were the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the Royal College of Midwives Northern Ireland team, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the Fire Brigades Union and the NI region of the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union.
Assistant general secretary of the ICTU Owen Reidy told the PA news agency that wages and state supports were already behind where they needed to be before the inflation crisis hit.
He said: “Forget about this year – over the last decade wages have fallen behind in Northern Ireland. If you look at inflation in the Republic it’s about 7%, but it’s about 9.1% across the UK, and they reckon it’s going to go to about 11.1% before the year is out.
“Teachers, civil servants, other public sector workers are going to be lodging pay claims over the next number of weeks and months, and private sector workers at firm level are trying to bargain with their employers.
“But in some cases, employers have their hands tied behind their backs because there’s no state support and we need to see that state intervention as well.
“But again, you have to have a government in Westminster that cares and is interested, and quite frankly, they’re not, and you have to have an Executive that’s able to respond.”
Mr Reidy said one of the things that the Executive could do once it returns is to make access to collective bargaining easier for workers, with wages possibly negotiated at a sectoral level to ensure that agreements are made to create “minimal floors” for workers’ conditions, not “ceilings”.
“This is only the start of the campaign,” he said, adding that it would continue until the Christmas period.
“Things are bad enough in the summer – what’s it going to be like in the autumn and winter?”
Sinn Fein secured a historic victory in last month’s Assembly elections, emerging as the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time.
However, the DUP has blocked attempts to restore the powersharing Stormont assembly or to form an Executive as part of its protest against the protocol, which has created a trade border in the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party have criticised the DUP for its decision, arguing that it prevents MLAs from taking action on the cost of living and other issues such as long waiting lists for healthcare.
Speaking after Stormont’s main parties met to discuss what a potential programme for government might look like if powersharing returns, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said: “The reality is that the DUP’s blockage of the Executive is preventing us from being able to agree a budget and is preventing departments from the ability to be able to plan for what is going to be a very, very difficult period ahead, certainly the winter months are going to be probably the most challenging the people have ever seen in terms of the cost-of-living crisis.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has argued that the protocol “is pushing up the cost of living for people here and restricting choice on the shelves”.