Belfast Telegraph

Lisa Smyth: Lack of money dashes Julian Smith's optimistic tweet

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

The outcome of yesterday's crunch negotiations is the worst result anyone could have predicted. Ironically, after a series of meetings with unions yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had posted an optimistic tweet that he was hopeful that agreement could be reached.

Within a few hours, however, the relationship between the unions and health service officials had reached a new low.

Despite Julian Smith's earlier optimism, it was hardly surprising. Throughout the entire process, the unions have refused to budge from their position that nothing less than pay parity with the rest of the UK is acceptable.

It's difficult to argue with their position - Northern Ireland's health service is in the midst of a workforce crisis.

Many staff are working to the point of exhaustion, unable to guarantee the safety of their patients, and an increasing number are relying on food banks to feed their families. They look across the water at colleagues being paid thousands of pounds more for doing the same job, with better conditions, and it is little wonder they have said enough is enough.

It is unknown whether Julian Smith knew the details of the financial package that was to be offered to the unions yesterday afternoon when he posted on Twitter. But even before the negotiations began, the unions warned no agreement could be reached without pay parity, and knowing the current financial climate, it was difficult to see how the Department of Health had magically found the £50m it needed to reach an agreement on the issue.

As it turns out, the money wasn't there and talks have broken down once again. The Department of Health has insisted it has no more money to give.

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So, where does that leave staff and patients?

Until now, the public has been overwhelmingly in favour of the unions' position, but time will tell whether the support remains as more patients are affected by the disruption. Plans are being finalised in all trusts as to what services are to be affected in the days and weeks ahead and it is likely that the Belfast Trust will continue with its almost blanket cancellation of outpatient appointments and elective surgery.

It will also be interesting to see whether union members can financially afford to continue with prolonged industrial action or whether they will feel the impact on patients is too great.

As it stands, it appears that Julian Smith is the only person who can now bring an end to the deadlock in the absence of a health minister.

It is understood he is the only person who can go to the Treasury and ask for money.

But with just a week left until the General Election, it is likely his attention will be elsewhere.

However, without intervention by Mr Smith, we will be relying on the resumption of the Assembly.

It remains to be seen whether Northern Ireland's politicians are willing to put their differences aside to ensure the future of the health service.

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