Unions back NICS head's call to address 'unacceptable pay disparity' ahead of strike

Tomorrow's strike can be averted if UK government makes funds available for pay rises, unions say
NIPSA is one of 15 unions staging strikes tomorrow. Photo: Tony Smith/Alamy Stock Photo

Trade unions have welcomed a plea from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service for ministers to release funds to address an “unacceptable public sector pay disparity” ahead of this week’s mass strike.

NICS head Jayne Brady wrote to Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris this week urging him to take “urgent action” on pay to head off a 24-hour strike tomorrow.

Civil servants are among an estimated 170,000 public servants across 15 trade unions including health, education and rail who will walk out in what is expected to be the largest strike seen in Northern Ireland in recent years.

In her letter, seen by the PA agency, Brady said Heaton-Harris was facing "one of the last opportunities to avert the strike action planned for this week".

An estimated £634m is needed to maintain "broad parity" between Northern Ireland civil servants and those in England, Scotland and Wales, according to the letter.

Most NICS staff were awarded a flat-rate pay adjustment of just £552 in April, despite unions’ opposition. The award is worth less than 1% to the majority of civil servants, according to NIPSA, which will be part of tomorrow's walkout.

Brady said her letter is “without prejudice to any decisions that an incoming executive might take”, but that she was concerned about the “public services, citizen safety and wellbeing, and the stability of public finances” posed by underfunding.

“You have publicly stated that the UK government cannot, and will not, stand by and allow public services and finances to decline further,” she said.

“This Thursday will represent the single biggest day of industrial action in a generation, reflecting the strength of feeling and deteriorating, and frankly untenable, position we are now in.”

Welcoming the letter, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Union called for an immediate budget allocation.

"This has been the position of the trade union movement from the beginning of this dispute. It is also the position of every political party In Northern Ireland," NIC-ICTU said in a statement.

"In response to this, Chris Heaton-Harris continues to parrot the same discredited line he has held throughout this crisis, that fair pay for public servants is not his responsibility, but that of a restored NI Executive."

In December, the UK government offered a £3.3bn package to restore Stormont’s devolved executive in December, including £584m to give civil servants and other public sector workers pay rises.

However, the funding was contingent upon Stormont's political parties accepting the deal and restoring the executive, which they have not yet done.

Civil service union NIPSA's general secretary, Carmel Gates, said last week that Heaton-Harris had “dangled the promise of money in front of workers, while withholding the very funds they desperately need”.

Heaton-Harris held more talks with the parties on Monday. He said afterwards that he would set out his next steps "in due course", but did not give any details.

In its statement, NIC-ICTU said Heaton-Harris's strategy "has clearly failed and it has failed the people of Northern Ireland".

"It is long past time that this calamitous fiasco was brought to an end," it said.

"The trade union movement is clear, the disruption of industrial action this Thursday can be averted. If the money is made available and negotiations begin, we stand ready to engage."

A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: "It's disappointing to see leaked correspondence at this sensitive time. Our absolute priority and full focus is to see a restored executive delivering for people and workers in Northern Ireland.

"We have offered a fair and generous package worth £3bn, which will help a restored executive address a range of pressing issues in the round, from public sector pay to support with ensuring sustainable public services.

"This offer is on the table for parties to take forward at pace."

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