Newly elected health minister Robin Swann has announced he will offer pay parity for health workers in a bid to halt industrial action.
Mr Swann made the announcement after a meeting with health unions on Tuesday morning.
The trade unions, meanwhile, described the discussions as “meaningful” in a joint statement and promised to take the offer to their respective executives, with a “public statement” likely to follow next week from individual trade unions.
This comes just days before further planned strike action by nurses.
The Royal College of Nursing had informed the department of its plans to continue strike action on Monday, Wednesday and Friday next week.
But the union’s Northern Ireland director, Pat Cullen, has now said the “suspension” of that strike action could be proposed at its Northern Ireland board meeting on Thursday.
“We are pleased that the minister has listened carefully and responded quickly to our concerns,” she added.
The largest union in the Northern Ireland health service, Unison, has also confirmed its elected officials will meet to consider the offer on Thursday.
Unison official Anne Speed said: “We remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached.”
Mr Swann told the Assembly on Tuesday that the move to bring Northern Ireland health workers’ pay into line with the rate offered in England would cost “an additional £30 million” — on top of a £79 million package put together by department officials last year. The money is to come from existing Stormont finances, he said.
The former UUP leader, who promised after taking on the post that he would try and resolve the industrial dispute “right away”, said the pay move could prove a “breakthrough”.
But the new minister admitted that pay parity is only one of the outstanding issues.
Another key issue, he said, for trade unions is the staffing level in the health service.
Mr Swann said: “Trade union asks on safe staffing will not be delivered immediately — this will be a long term endeavour, but I hope that unions and staff will take assurance that the plan will be realistic, that additional funding will be required, and that I will bring it to the Executive for endorsement on this basis.”
He added: “I believe the component parts are now in place to settle the industrial dispute.
“Additional funding has now been secured. Pay parity with England can be restored.”
Urging trade unions to back the deal, Mr Swann continued: “Our nurses and other great health and social care workers can come off the picket line, can get back to the job that they love and do so well.”
Department officials and trade union leaders are due to meet tomorrow to discuss the detail of the plans.
A spokesperson for the unions said: “We will take the mMinister’s correspondence to our respective executives this week.”