Round and around: Strikers livid over living costs as another attempt to restore Stormont fails

MLA pay will be cut by 27% from January because of the protocol-related political hiatus, but the slashed wage is still more than most other striking workers will get this December.

A fifth attempt to end the DUP boycott and get power sharing back up and running has failed, and anger continues to mount as costs go up, but income does not.

New guidance from the Secretary of State means public sector pay deals can be made without Executive ministers, as long as the relevant departments can afford them within the budget that is being set.

A statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary displayed his disappointment at the state the finances were left in.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: "The fact that ministers who remained in their posts during the six months from May to October 2022, have left NI’s public finances with a black hole of some £660million is hugely disappointing.

“I believe that if the necessary care of Northern Ireland’s public finances had been taken over the last six months, the risk of overspend could have been more easily and fully mitigated. “However we recognise the public in Northern Ireland must be protected in future by bringing the public finances under control so it is with significant regret that I am now setting a Northern Ireland audget, as the former Executive failed to do so.

“I have a clear message to the parties - if they disagree with my budget, they should restore the Executive to consider and revise the departmental position I have set out.” Responding the Department of Finance said it will enable departments and public sector employers "to engage with their staff groups to develop pay proposals for negotiation, agreement and implementation as soon as possible".

Many workers will certainly hope that this is the case.

Nurse Edel Coulter will be striking with RCN members on the 15 and 20 of December. The Lisburn mum works in cancer services in Belfast, which is protected in-part during strikes due to the specialist care required by patients. It means she will not be on the picket line for very long, but is participating nonetheless, because she wants to see safe staffing and a pay increase that enables her and her colleagues to have “normal lives”.

It isn’t just public sector workers who are struggling though, so the latest permission for Stormont departments to progress with pay talks will be of no help to anyone employed in the private sector, or who is self-employed.

Postal workers are engaging in a series of December walkouts in an effort to secure better pay, and keep their previous working arrangements for hours and weekends.

Latest talks have broken down. A Royal Mail spokesperson said "all we received was another request for more pay, without the changes needed to fund the pay offer". One worker who will be striking said he wanted ordinary voices to be heard as to why the action is deemed necessary, but was afraid to be identified in case it had any disciplinary consequences. Royal Mail rejected his claims. A statement to UTV said that “colleagues are free to express all views relating to strike action”.

The anonymous postman says he has already explained to his child that Christmas may not be as “fancy” as usual, because of the stretched financial position missing shifts to strike is putting him in. He says he will be on the picket line though, adding that mortgage increases have been of particular concern among his peers. “I was lucky enough mine is a fixed rate, but theirs (my friends) is constantly changing," he told UTV. “One guy is now paying three, four hundred pounds more a month more, compared to what he was.

"He’s looking as many hours as he can get, but he's still taking part in the industrial action because he believes… In what the cause is, that we're fighting for.”

In communities, work to investigate the impact of the cost of living, and charitable acts to ease the burden, are going on.

An absent Stormont makes Belfast Antrim Road Bakery owner John Kelly feel sick. He has been giving out free breakfast packs to any children in need of one since October, and is collecting Christmas presents for the 15th year, but says donations are down this year. It appears that former donors may be starting to struggle themselves. Women’s Research Network has been collecting some figures that lay bare how dire the situation is for many. Siobhan Harding is the research and policy officer, and says women often bear the brunt of poverty in the home.

She says the group’s recently published survey of Women’s Centres across Northern Ireland shows that 51% of those asked have borrowed money through high cost lending, to cover the cost of essentials, while 60% are struggling to make the required repayments. Ms Harding says the return of Stormont could really help people, especially by implementing points from the review of welfare mitigations and the review of discretionary support. It does not appear as though her Christmas wish for the return of the Assembly will be granted though, with the stalemate still looking set to rumble into 2023.

Catchup with View From Stormont here.

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