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‘Going on strike was our last resort’: public-sector workers in North grittily determined amid snow

Striking public-sector workers express frustration at efforts to make progress on pay and conditions amid political stalemate

“How long has this been going on?” was the question sung by a striking paramedic that blasted across Derry’s Guildhall Square. Both at the rally and on picket lines earlier that day, many had been asking the same thing.

“The bottom line is people have had enough,” said Liam Deehan, paramedic and Unison shop steward with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. “We’re that far behind now, I would put public services in Northern Ireland at fourth class, and we have to make a stand, and this is all we can do.”

“We don’t want to be here,” said midwife Deirdre McCafferty. “We want to be doing our jobs, caring for women and their babies.

“But we do want to be paid fairly for what we do and feel valued. Right now, we feel so undervalued.


“Going on strike was our last resort. What else have we got left? We need our politicians to sort this out, for us and our colleagues.”

She and her fellow midwives were among many who had braved snowy conditions in the northwest to join the lengthy picket line outside Altnagelvin hospital in Derry on Thursday morning.

Also on strike were the roads service staff who drive gritters; without them, the bad weather made clear just how much drivers rely on them to keep the roads open and safe.

On Thursday morning even the main routes in the city – the Foyle Bridge and the Crescent Link past Altnagelvin and on to the A6 to Belfast – were covered in slow and slush. What traffic there was reduced to a crawl, though most still made sure to beep their horns in support of the striking workers as they passed the hospital picket line.

Outside Thornhill College in Derry, teachers manned their own picket line at the school gates. “I believe something has to be done,” said teacher and National Education Union (NEU) representative Jarlath Parlour. “I’m hoping this will spur the DUP and spur Chris Heaton-Harris to address the situation. But, you know, wishful thinking perhaps.”

“We’re teaching children all the time about equality, respect,” said his colleague Maeve Connelly, yet “we have no Assembly, we have no government in place. It’s like walking through treacle to try and get pay parity and to get a government and an Executive in place to listen to us and to be fair. It’s just about fairness.”

If the sense of frustration was palpable, so too was the determination of those on strike. As yet more snow fell on Guildhall Square, the crowd of about 1,000 strikers and their supporters listened intently as speaker after speaker, representing multiple unions, vowed they would not give up.

“It is immoral to link our pay and the funding of our services to this political game,” was the call from one union speaker, to loud cheers and whistles. “Secretary of state, and whoever else, and when the Assembly’s back, if we have to, we’ll fight you as well.

“From today comrades, remember, the workers will never be defeated. Up the strikers!”

In Belfast, the mood was also defiant.

Tens of thousands of flag-waving workers converged on City Hall where they roared their demands for fair pay.

Chants broke out when a union leader told them they had brought Northern Ireland to a “shuddering halt” by the “enormous power” of their actions.

For Molly Patterson, a cancer nurse who moved from California to Belfast 10 years ago, it was a sad day. For the first time in the history of strike action taken by her trade union, the Royal College of Nursing, chemotherapy services were affected with no treatment in place between 7.30am and 1pm.

“It’s a very difficult decision for us not to be treating our patients, I definitely don’t enjoy it but there has been lot of support from patients,” she said.

“We’re always short staffed in our unit, we’re always trying to get the numbers up to ensure there’s adequate staffing for patients safety – because patient safety is paramount.

“We’re all just tired that we’re not being listened to.”

Standing on an icy picket line outside Belfast City Hospital, where the North’s regional cancer centre is based, domestic Susan Rodgers huddles with her mother who has come to support her.

“I’ve been working here 21 years and love my job,” she said.

“Nobody wants to be standing on a picket line, it’s a last resort but people are pushed to breaking point now and things need to change. The only way to do that is to stand together to try to make that change.”

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Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times