Pressure mounts on ministers to release funds for NI pay rises

Heaton-Harris must act to "meet the overdue wage bill of our public servants", union chief says
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Public service unions have urged the Westminster government to release funds for pay rises after the Northern Ireland secretary extended a deadline to restore devolution.

Chris Heaton-Harris laid legislation in the Commons yesterday to extend the deadline by which he must call an assembly election in the absence of an executive.

Northern Ireland’s political parties now have until 8 February to restore power sharing or Heaton-Harris will be forced to call an election.

But unions have said he must now release funds to increase public sector pay – over which tens of thousands of public servants took strike action last week – instead of waiting for the deadline. 

The executive formation bill, which will be fast-tracked through parliament, aims to give the Democratic Unionist Party more time to return to the table. The DUP has been blocking power sharing for nearly two years over objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Heaton-Harris said: “Ministers will be empowered to immediately begin working to address the needs of local people and unleash Northern Ireland’s full and amazing potential. This bill to helps to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved governance to the citizens of Northern Ireland.”

A restored executive would have access to the £3.3bn financial package he unveiled at the end of last year, he added.

But unions have been calling on the Northern Ireland secretary to release the money – and in particular, the cash set aside to fund public sector pay rises – before the political stalemate is resolved.

During yesterday’s debate on the bill, Social Democratic & Labour Party MP Colum Eastwood said he had proposed an amendment “calling on the secretary of state to pay those workers”.

“Last week 175,000 people were on picket lines across Northern Ireland, in the cold and the snow. I think people will know that my preference is for the DUP to return to government as soon as possible, so that we have democratically elected politicians making these decisions and we can get the money into those people’s pockets, but I am furious that ordinary workers have been used as a political pawn because of our political failure. That is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

In a statement yesterday, Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy welcomed the proposed amendment and called for talks between trade unions and public sector employers to begin immediately "so workers can reap the rewards of their principled resistance to these shameful political games".

“Last week saw 170,000 public servants make salary sacrifices, lining out in the cold streets on picket lines, talking part in marches and rallies, in search of pay justice,” he said.

“Their hopes as expressed across the North and on the airwaves are genuine and deserve to be addressed today and not strung out for another fortnight."

“Regardless of what happens between now and February 8, Chris Heaton-Harris must move immediately to release the money to meet the overdue wage bill of our public servants," he added.

“Society must now engage in a serious discussion on how NI is financed and the trade union movement is ready to be part of those discussions."

A number of MPs also backed the call to release funds for pay rises during yesterday’s debate.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn urged Heaton-Harris to act “so that the disputes can be settled, workers can get their pay increases and public services can try to address the many challenges that they face”.

“Everyone, including the government, now recognises that that is not a sustainable position,” he said, warning that “further industrial action is likely coming towards us” if public servants do not receive a pay rise soon.

“The proof on the government’s side is that, in announcing the financial package, they identified money for public sector pay, but it will not be released until such time as the executive are restored. If I may be frank, I understand why the secretary of state took that decision initially, but in relation to public sector pay, that moment has now passed,” he said.

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