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Workers demand ‘different future’ at NI rallies

Thousands of public sector workers have taken to the streets across Northern Ireland in the biggest strike action in the region’s recent history.

A mass rally in Belfast heard calls for Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to release pay awards for workers and also for the DUP to end its boycott of Stormont.

An estimated 150,000 public sector workers are taking part in the walkouts over pay, with trade unions warning that action will escalate in the future if their pay demands are not met.

People hold placards as they attend a rally in support of striking public sector workers in Belfast

Following early morning pickets at hospitals, schools and public buildings, a number of feeder parades marched towards Belfast City Hall where a large crowd gathered for a rally addressed by multiple trade unions representatives.

Workers chanted: “What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!” and “the workers united will never be defeated” as they marched towards the city centre.

The rally in Belfast heard that workers are demanding a different future.

Owen Reidy from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions addressed thousands at Belfast City Hall.

He said: “Today is historic, not only is it potentially the largest mobilisation of the trade union movement in this state’s history, but I think by your actions you have taken a decision to turn the page of history, to say we are not going back to the failed ways of the past where public services are under-resourced.

“You are not going back to the past where you are getting negligible or no pay increases.

“You are going to demand a different future.”

‘Not going to back down’

Speaking earlier at Stormont, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) General Secretary Carmel Gates said workers were being used as a “political pawn” by Mr Heaton-Harris.

She said: “It shows the anger of public sector workers who haven’t had a decent pay rise in more than ten years.

“Now we believe we are being used as a political pawn in a game by the Secretary of State (Mr Heaton-Harris).”

She added: “My members are angry and they are not going to back down.

“This is not something which is a temporary fight. They are so angry at how they have been treated.

“This is the beginning, we will escalate. The Secretary of State needs to know that, this is not the end.”

Public sector workers in Northern Ireland have not received pay uplifts given to counterparts elsewhere in the UK due to the ongoing political impasse at Stormont.

The UK government has offered a financial package worth more than £3bn to accompany the return of a devolved executive in Belfast.

The package includes money to settle the pay dispute, but Mr Heaton-Harris has made clear the funding is contingent on a political to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Teacher Linda Millar said she was striking so workers in Northern Ireland could get pay parity with the rest of the UK.

Ms Millar, a teacher at Ballyclare Secondary School and a member of the Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU), was on the picket line at Stormont this morning with her one-year-old son Ed.

She said: “Our beginning teachers get £8,000 a year less.

“We are losing teachers left, right and centre to Doha, Dubai, everywhere.

Linda Millar said the North’s education system is ‘crumbling’

“The education system is crumbling. Our buildings are crumbling, we don’t have educational psychologists.

“We want to feel valued as workers and we don’t have the resources.

“It is really important to come out today to support everybody.”

Northern Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation Mark McTaggart said teachers are feeling “totally undervalued”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, he said all five teaching unions are working together “through this action” and are on strike today.

“There is a real feeling amongst teachers and amongst the teachers’ unions that it is time something was done.”

He said they are waiting three years for an increase in pay.

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