Government ‘should immediately stump up for pay rise for public sector workers’ in Northern Ireland

The Government should immediately stump up for a pay rise for Northern Ireland public sector workers – rather than making it dependent on Stormont’s return, Sinn Féin has insisted.

Money to settle outstanding public sector pay demands in Northern Ireland is included in a £2.5 billion package the Government has offered in support of a restored power sharing administration in Belfast.

But Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris has made clear to the local parties that the package will only be made available if devolution returns.

Pay awards made to other public sector workers in the UK this year have not been implemented in Northern Ireland due to the region’s ongoing governance impasse and associated financial woes.

Representatives of the five main parties attended talks with Government officials at Hillsborough Castle on Tuesday to examine the finer detail of the financial offer tabled on Monday.

But party leaders have already said the package does not go far enough.

The offer also comes with an expectation that returning devolved ministers would seek to raise more revenue within Northern Ireland, with hiked rates bills one route by which that could be achieved.

DUP representatives outside Hillsborough Castle Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

The DUP criticised the Government proposals as “not adequate” on Tuesday, insisting London ministers did not appreciate the seriousness of the financial problems facing Northern Ireland.

The offer was made amid ongoing efforts by the Government to convince the DUP to end its blockade of the power-sharing institutions.

Devolved government has not been functioning in Northern Ireland for nearly two years because of a DUP boycott in protest at post-Brexit trade agreements.

The DUP has been in negotiations with the Government to secure legislative assurances over Northern Ireland’s economic position in the UK.

Both sides insist that process remains ongoing, but speculation has been mounting in recent weeks that devolution may soon return, with the tabling of the financial package interpreted by many as a further step toward restoration.

The proposed measures in the Government package include funding for public sector pay rises this year, reform of the funding model for Northern Ireland – including the setting of a new fiscal floor, and increasing the period by which Stormont has to pay back a budget overspend.

As the politicians assessed the details of the offer in Hillsborough on Tuesday, public sector workers, one dressed as a Grinch, staged a protest at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in Belfast.

Sinn Fein MLAs Conor Murphy and Caoimhe Archibald Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Emerging from the discussions inside Hillsborough Castle, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy called on the Government to immediately make available the lump sum to settle the public sector pay claim.

“The fact is, if the British Government currently has money to pay public sector workers who are standing out here yesterday freezing (at a protest at Hillsborough Castle) and will be on strike again, why don’t they pay them now?” he said.

“Why should workers have to wait for the DUP to decide if they are going to do powersharing or not do power sharing as to whether they will get a wage this year?”

Mr Murphy has said it is “very clear there is still no reason” for the Northern Ireland Executive not to be in place, as he called on the DUP to end its boycott.

Asked if he felt Sinn Féin was not being listened to during the talks with the NIO, Mr Murphy added: “This isn’t a real negotiation, let’s not be fooled by that.

“This is a presentation of the NIO of some grand plan that they’ve come up with that falls short of what is needed.

“A real negotiation would be with a first and deputy first minister over to London to talk to a British Prime Minister, supported by other Executive ministers talking to the Treasury.”

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said he did not believe the Government “grasp the gravity of the situation and where we are at in terms of our public finances”.

He said there had to be a long-term solution to Northern Ireland’s funding crisis.

“We don’t want something which just gets us over the hump of this year or allows for pay increases to take place over one year,” he said.

“We want to ensure in the next number of years we have that certainty so we’re not back here again and public sector workers are having to go on strike again.”

Regarding a potential return to Stormont before Christmas, he said: “We have not and are not going to put any timelines on this.

“We are very clear we want to see Stormont back on a sustainable footing. That means the political issues, the constitutional issues, the economic issues, need to be resolved.

“I am hopeful that progress can be made, and be made quickly.”

But he said his party returning to Stormont was not enough to bring financial stability to Northern Ireland.

“The reality is we need to see that funding in place and that funding is not there,” he said. “That is what we are looking to resolve.”

He added: “Going back to Stormont in of itself does not resolve these issues.”

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said there was a risk the negotiations could drift over Christmas as he said public patience with the DUP has “run out”.

“We also need a clear message from the DUP that they are going to go back into the Assembly and the Executive,” he said.

“That will give us a much stronger basis upon which to argue to the UK Government.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said the issue of revenue raising measures was more complex than introducing a major hike to rates bills.

“Just a straightforward, we’re going to increase the rates by 15%, I don’t think that’s where we are,” he said.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole has said it would be “inexcusable” for negotiations around the Government’s offer on a public-sector pay deal and the restoration of Northern Ireland’s institutions to “drag on beyond Christmas”.

“I don’t think public-sector workers or people who rely on our public services are going to wait any longer for more dither, more delay and more indecision,” he said.

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