Unions arrive at City Hall rally as 'unprecedented' walkout in Northern Ireland gets underway

Workers from 16 unions are taking industrial action in what has been described as the biggest strike in Northern Ireland in 50 years.

An estimated 170,000 public sector staff are participating in today's mass industrial action over pay.

Thousands of striking workers have arrived at Belfast City Hall for a mass rally, as part of Thursday's day of action which will see marches and demonstrations across Northern Ireland.

Other demonstrations have taken place at Guildhall Square in Londonderry, Omagh court house and Enniskillen town hall.

Crowds in Belfast have called for money for striking public sector workers to be released by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

The mass trade union rally has heard that workers are demanding a different future.

Teaching unions have told the rally that the DUP should return to Stormont.

Mark McTaggart of INTO said: “Jeffrey Donaldson of DUP has spent nearly two years outside Stormont refusing to let the executive sit because of his concerns over a sea border.

“Yet he is more than happy to have a sea border for pay for public sector workers.

“It is time that somebody knocked their heads together and got them to get back to their places of work.”

Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT said: “To the DUP, we say get back into government.

“We fully understand that there are issues arising from Brexit that are problematic but these issues must be addressed within the agreed political framework.

“The Tories have taken our money, the DUP should not take our hope.”

The DUP and Northern Ireland's other main political parties have urged Mr Heaton-Harris to release the money for the pay awards but the Secretary of State maintains that public sector pay is a “devolved matter”.

The Northern Ireland Office has said a £3.3 billion package to stabilise finances in Northern Ireland, including £600 million to settle public sector pay claims, will be available when Northern Ireland's powersharing institutions are restored.

Linda Millar, a secondary school teacher, said she was joining the picket lines to help achieve pay parity with the rest of the UK.

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

“The education system is crumbling. Our buildings are crumbling.”

In a statement, Mr Heaton-Harris said it was “regrettable” that the Stormont Assembly had not been resurrected to access funds to make the pay awards to public sector workers.

Thursday also marks the deadline in current legislation for the resumption of Stormont, or the Secretary of State is obliged to call a fresh election.

Mr Heaton-Harris has made clear he will extend that deadline and introduce further legislation to ensure continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

“Today’s strike will be disruptive for people across Northern Ireland. I understand the serious concerns that people across Northern Ireland have about the impact this action will have on vital public services,” he said.

“While public sector pay is devolved, the UK Government has offered a fair and generous package worth over £3 billion which would address public sector pay and provides more than £1 billion to stabilise public services.

“This will require ministers being back to work in Stormont so that decisions on governing can be taken in the round.”

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