Sinn Fein has been described as “shameless” for throwing its full weight behind today’s strikes – despite approving the very same budget cuts which demonstrators are opposing.
While most main parties voiced misgivings or outright opposition to the huge day of industrial action, Sinn Fein said its own politicians will join the protests.
Today is expected to see widespread disruption as a wave of public employees – ranging from the transport, education and health sectors – stage a mass stoppage.
Back in mid-January, Sinn Fein agreed to sign up to a budget for the Province which was replete with cutbacks.
It included budget reductions in nine out of the 12 government departments, ranging from a 0.6 per cent cut for the Department for Regional Development to 10.7 per cent in the Department for the Environment.
Today’s strike gives voice to employees’ anger over job losses and pay freezes, and Kevin McAdam – national officer for health with Unite – said the party would have to “square the circle” of how it can both oppose austerity on the streets, and endorse such cuts at Stormont.
The party outlined its position on the strikes in a statement bearing the name of Mickey Brady, Newry and Armagh MLA.
It read: “Sinn Fein will be supporting the industrial action planned by trade unionists for Friday. We recognise the need to mobilise democratic resistance to austerity through industrial action.
“We are supporting the industrial action on the basis that the source of austerity in the North is the Tory-led British government in London and their policy of savage cuts.”
It concluded: “We view this as part of a combined effort encompassing political pressure, community opposition and industrial action against austerity.”
However, this position was described as “duplicitous” by Mr McAdam.
He said: “It’s shameless; shameless is the word I would use... It doesn’t surprise me, but it annoys me that on the one hand they approved the thing, and they’re standing with us, and we’re opposed. They need to square the circle with themselves.
“If they show up on our picket line, they’re opposing what they voted through. It gives them a dilemma, I’d have thought.”
Asked if they would not be welcome, he said: “Everybody, as members of the public, that are opposed to what’s going on are welcome to express their concerns.”
Peter Bunting, assistant general secretary of the Irish Council of Trade Unions, was asked if he believes Sinn Fein attendees may face hostility.
He said: “They may – a bit of slagging, yes, I’d assume so”.
He urged those participating in rallies to maintain “discipline at all times”.
Though they and other politicians (including the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell) intend to be at union-run demonstrations, he added: “I can assure you – there’ll be no politicians speaking at any rally. None. No politicians, of any party.”
THE FOLLOWING ARE THE STATEMENTS ON THE STRIKES, IN FULL, FROM ALL FIVE MAIN PARTIES:
SF: “Sinn Fein will be supporting the industrial action planned by trade unionists for Friday.
“We recognise the need to mobilise democratic resistance to austerity through industrial action.
“We are supporting the industrial action on the basis that the source of austerity in the North is the Tory-led British government in London and their policy of savage cuts.
“Sinn Fein elected representatives and activists will be taking part in demonstrations against austerity with trade unions as part of the industrial action.
“We view this as part of a combined effort encompassing political pressure, community opposition and industrial action against austerity.”
Dr Alasdair McDonnell, leader of the SDLP: “The effects of the policies of austerity, voted for by Sinn Fein and the DUP, as ushered in by the Tories at Westminster are stark.
“We hear more every day about how teachers, classroom assistants, transport workers, health service staff and others will face cutbacks, salary freezes, or redundancy. This situation is unacceptable to the SDLP and that’s why we voted against an anti-worker, anti-public service budget.
“The SDLP has always stood in defence of workers and in defence of the highest quality public services.
“We stood strong to support DVA workers in the face of an unjustified attack on their jobs by the British Government. “We stood strong with public sector workers in the fight for a better pension deal when other parties gave in and struck a blow against the working class.
“And we have consistently stood strong against the wave of austerity following the DUP and Sinn Fein forcing through their budget.
“I understand that this strike will cause difficulty for people across the North. But it’s important to realise that this is a reaction against the austerity agenda that has been supported by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“These parties, and others, should be the focus of public anger, not the workers.
“We have and always will stand shoulder to shoulder with workers.
“That’s why I’ll be joining workers on at the picket lines in Belfast on Friday.
“The SDLP will not be found wanting on our campaign to protect them and protect our public services.”
The Alliance Party: “While Alliance respects the right of trade unions to organise industrial action, the fact is that the Executive has been forced to make difficult decisions on the budget and today’s strike action cannot change the situation that the Executive faces.”
The UUP: “The Ulster Unionist Party was not satisfied with the final 2015/16 Budget settlement and that is why we voted against it in the Executive and the Assembly.
“Instead of allocations that best met the needs of Northern Ireland, the Budget was carved up to the political wishes of only Sinn Fein and the DUP.
“Unfortunately, by failing to plan appropriately in previous years, public services are now paying the price for the reckless mismanagement of the 2011-2015 Budget.
“Whilst we respect the right of anyone to strike, on this occasion we do not believe it is the best course of action for the trade unions to take.
“There will be major interruption to key public services such as health, education and transport and this will not be to the benefit of either staff or service users.
“We appeal that this is a one-off. Industrial action is not the fix we need
“We would urge the leadership of the trade unions to engage more cooperatively through political means to try to help us rectify some of the major flaws with the 2015/16 Budget.”
DUP East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson: “At a time when we are trying to grow our economy, this strike only makes that task harder.
“It is an odd way to promote jobs and economic confidence when you ensure that public services are reduced and many other workers, in both the public and private sector face huge disruption.
“This strike will not bring a single extra penny into the Northern Ireland budget, so it cannot help achieve any a resolution to any of the issues they are protesting against.
“It is also counterproductive in that cynicism which exists about the protections the public sector public sector has had compared to other sectors, will be increased.
“The trade unions calling this strike against cuts have been silent on the threat posed to the budget if the Welfare Reform Bill is not passed.
“If that legislation does not go through, public services will face cuts of a magnitude many times greater than those they now protest against.
“It was of course, the trade unions who first advocated a rejection of the Bill which could cause such a devastating impact on all public services here.”