THE north of Ireland was yesterday gripped by a 24-hour general strike by health, education, transport and civil service workers protesting against job cuts and Stormont House austerity.
Tens of thousands took part in marches and rallies across the north in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Strabane, Omagh, Enniskillen, Coleraine, Magherafelt, Cookstown, Dungannon and Craigavon.
The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said it was ‘the largest single day of industrial action in several years’, citing the Stormont House Agreement as a ‘bad deal’.
The Northern Ireland Assembly got in a first blow two hours before the strike was due to commence at midnight on Thursday, declaring a major incident, forcing ambulance workers to work.
Angered by this provocative strikebreaking manoeuvre, thousands of nurses joined picket lines outside hospitals.
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown told News Line: ‘The feeling is very strong. Nurses are out in massive numbers. Thousands are on picket lines and are out across the country.
‘Workers at hospitals, schools, on bus and train transport and civil servants are taking action. The major incident declared just two hours before the action was due to start has affected our ambulance members. It’s a strikebreaking move.’
A joint unions’ statement angrily condemned the strikebreaking move. It noted that the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) and union representatives had come to an agreement for life-threatening 999 calls to be answered on Friday.
Unison’s McKeown said the ‘major incident’ move was a ‘complete breach of faith’.
She added: ‘There are no indications that such a major incident exists. However at 1.00am a non-emergency crew was instructed to attend the Mater Hospital to provide non-emergency transport.
‘The crew was threatened with disciplinary action if they did not respond. This is strike-breaking and intimidation. The NIAS management has now issued an apology to us and our members and has withdrawn the non-emergency services.
‘Ambulance staff have the right to strike and we will support our members who chose to exercise their right.’
Unite’s Kevin McAdam added: ‘From here on we reserve the legal right to strike and NIAS have a statutory obligation to provide a service. Nothing further needs to be accommodated.’
The ICTU placed an advertisement in national newspapers on Thursday claiming that money being offered by the government is not new money.
It said that at least 20,000 jobs could disappear under a government redundancy scheme.
The ICTU declared: ‘On behalf of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, public sector workers engaged in industrial action are commended for their sacrifice today in pursuit of enhancing the quality of life of ALL citizens in Northern Ireland …
‘That is what they are defending, through taking industrial action. That is why we are all here, and at rallies across Northern Ireland. We are striking 50,000 blows for decent, high-quality and properly respected public services.’
It added: ‘We say NO to those who would rip up our social contract, who would steal from the young the chance of decent terms and conditions while serving the people as a health care worker, or an educator.
‘This campaign does not end today. Let us fight on and build for the alternative – for the people, jobs and public services!’