Health strikes: ‘There’s hope but we’re not over the line’, says Unison

Pacemaker Press 25-11-2019 Members of Northern Ireland's largest health workers' union pictured on strike over pay and staffing levels. Unison represents about 25,000 healthcare workers including nurses, social care staff, support services but not doctors. The first phase of industrial action will run from 25 November until 18 December and phase two will run to March 2020. Members pictured on strike outside The Mater Hospital in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/ Pacemaker Press.
Pacemaker Press 25-11-2019 Members of Northern Ireland's largest health workers' union pictured on strike over pay and staffing levels. Unison represents about 25,000 healthcare workers including nurses, social care staff, support services but not doctors. The first phase of industrial action will run from 25 November until 18 December and phase two will run to March 2020. Members pictured on strike outside The Mater Hospital in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/ Pacemaker Press.
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The largest trade union in the Northern Ireland health service has said it is hopeful of a resolution to a long running industrial dispute but warned it is not over the line yet.

Unison, whose members in nursing and a range of other healthcare professions are continuing strike action across Northern Ireland today, said it was “painful” to hear the Secretary of State Julian Smith confirm money is available to resolve the indusrial dispute but that it is contingent on political parties here agreeing to a new deal to restore powersharing.

Unison regional secretary, Patricia McKeown, was speaking after the British and Irish governments published the text of a draft deal on the eve of the latest health strikes last night.

The industrial dispute centres on the disparity in health workers’ pay between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and staffing levels.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, said on BBC Radio Ulster earlier today the money would be available to resolve the pay issue but that it is dependent on parties here agreeing to restore Stormont.

Patricia McKeown said: “As Unison members enter the third month of industrial action across the entire health service, there may be some hope of resolution but we are not there yet.

“Since November 2019 the courageous action of Unison members has put the health service back at the top of the political agenda, a position from which it was relegated 10 years ago.

“On December 17, 2019 the action of our members achieved something remarkable which had not happened during the three years of our suspended Government.

“Following pressure from us, the leaders of all five main political parties jointly signed a statement calling on the Secretary of State to resolve the pay and staffing dispute independently of the talks to restore the Executive.”

She continued: “As health workers take strike action again today, it is painful to hear the Secretary of State confirm publicly that the money to restore parity and rebuild the service is now on the table but will be removed if there is no political agreement.

“This is a cynical abuse of the sacrifice made by the many thousands of Unison members over the past three months and the hardship endured by patients and health workers alike for many years.

“We have repeatedly stated that using our members industrial action, the horrendous waiting times facing patients and the absence of key health and social services to secure political momentum is an abuse of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland, patients and workers alike.”

Ms McKeown added: “To use the distress of the people in Northern Ireland to secure wider political aims is something we will robustly challenge.

“Our industrial action continues. We await further developments today at Stormont.

“However, should the political process fail, we will pursue Julian Smith to act in the public interest, make the resources available and instruct the Department of Health to restore pay parity. If the money is there, it should be released without delay. There should be no more games, a point Unison members will be making outside the Department of Health this morning.”