Health unions in Northern Ireland have put industrial action on pause after the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland agreed to meet for pay talks this week.
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and Unison cancelled industrial action which was set to take place on Monday after Chris Heaton-Harris made arrangements to meet with health trade union negotiators on Wednesday 5 April.
It is also understood that officials from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland will attend the meeting.
Health unions had expressed their frustration over a ‘lack of clarity’ in relation to the pay offer for healthcare staff in Northern Ireland, amid concerns that a political impasse in the devolved institution has hindered progress towards an offer.
It was not until December 2022 for Health and Social Care (HSC) in Northern Ireland that the Department of Health was able to confirm it could implement a pay rise of at least £1,400 – in line with what previously had been given to NHS staff in England.
But in recent weeks, the UK Government has put forward a new and improved deal for NHS nurses and colleagues in England, consisting of a one-off payment for 2022-23 worth between £1,655 and £3,789 and a permanent 5% uplift for 2023/24. It is currently being consulted on by unions.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has stressed it will be ‘completely unacceptable’ if its members in Northern Ireland are not offered ‘at least the same pay award’ as that offered to those in England.
Rita Devlin, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said she had requested a meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris as ‘a matter of urgency’, after a meeting with the Department of Health led to no further progress.
She was therefore ‘pleased’ he had agreed to meet the RCN and other health unions this week.
‘Nursing staff working in Northern Ireland have been angry and frustrated at the continuing lack of clarity in relation to a pay offer for health care staff in Northern Ireland alongside the worsening conditions being experienced by both patients and staff across all areas of health and social care,’ said Ms Devlin.
She added that the absence of devolved institutions in the country was having a ‘devastating impact’ on staff and services.
‘We are clear that it will be completely unacceptable to our members if they are not offered at least the same pay award as nursing staff working in England,’ she said, noting that falling out of pay parity was ‘exactly why’ members had taken strike action in 2019.
Ms Devlin warned nursing staff in Northern Ireland ‘will not be prepared to accept this again’.
‘If this situation is not resolved urgently, we will be considering what further action, including strike, we must take to ensure our members are not left behind again,’ she added.
Meanwhile, the RCM, which had scheduled action short of a strike from the April 3 to 10, welcomed this ‘offer to negotiate’.
Karen Murray, RCM director for Northern Ireland, said: ‘We will enter into these talks with an open mind to come to an agreement.
‘We have paused action, but the Westminster government must be under no illusions; we have a very strong mandate for industrial action which we will not hesitate to use if these talks do not result in an offer that we feel we can put to our members.’
In addition, Patricia McKeown, regional secretary for Unison, which has also suspended a 24-hour strike planned for this week, said: ‘Health workers across Northern Ireland will not be left behind.’
She warned the message from members was that these talks ‘must be real, or the strike action will escalate’.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office, the government body overseeing devolution in Ireland, said the meeting scheduled was to ‘offer clarity on the pay offer that was made to health workers in England and Wales earlier this month and to discuss the Northern Ireland budget for 23/24’.
They added that the secretary of state ‘has no authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland’.
‘The pressures affecting Northern Ireland health services demonstrate the pressing need to have locally accountable political leaders in place to take fundamental decisions on Northern Ireland’s public services and deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland,’ added the spokesperson.
‘It remains the secretary of state’s hope that the parties will recognise the importance of getting back to work so that an executive is in place to take the decisions and action needed to address the challenges facing the public sector at this critical time.’
Meanwhile, the Department of Health said it ‘welcomes the suspension of strike action’ and that departmental officials ‘will be attending the meeting’ this week.