February 6, 2023

If you think things are tight for health workers in England, Scotland and Wales, think about their counterparts in Northern Ireland.

In England and Wales, NHS workers were given a raise of £1,400 six months ago. In Scotland, unions are considering an average bid of 7.5%.

But health workers in Northern Ireland only received confirmation of their £1,400 reward last Friday, as the devolved government has collapsed.

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Anne Speed, UNISON’s head of negotiation in Northern Ireland, said members needed an “inflation-cutting” wage increase.

“Inflation is at 11% and a wage increase should match that to protect workers,” she added.

“What is being awarded is only half the rate of inflation and healthcare workers are frustrated, fed up, very disappointed and are choosing to speak out.”

Pawns in a political game

Unions are willing to negotiate, but without a local health minister, that responsibility falls to Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

And therein lies the problem – not for the first time, health workers have become pawns in a political game around Stormont.

The DUP refuses to restore devolved government until the British government scraps the Northern Ireland Protocol.

That’s the bespoke part of the Brexit deal that established a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid one between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

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But six months – and three British Prime Ministers – since the Stormont election, the British government appears to be burying its head in the sand.

Like everywhere else, Northern Ireland is grappling with cost-of-living, energy and healthcare crises, but without political intervention.

The UK government is still unable to confirm when people living in Northern Ireland will receive the £600 energy allowance.

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Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris

There was disbelief last week when Mr Heaton-Harris said he planned to invite parties to “tea and scones” to try and build bridges.

Tea and scones – a stark departure from Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal – will not restore Stormont or revive Northern Ireland’s health service.

The whining in Westminster about the energy surcharge and about the wage increase for health workers smacks of political tour de force.

With workers feeling the heat – or the cold because they can’t afford gas – the government will hope the DUP is feeling the heat over its Stormont boycott.

But it is extremely naive to think that ‘tea and scones’ will trump the constitutional positions people hold in Northern Ireland.

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