NI Secretary accused of snubbing late bid to avert strike by healthcare workers

Stormont politicians have accused the Secretary of State of snubbing a last-ditch meeting aimed at averting a healthcare workers strike in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP criticised Julian Smith ahead of the unprecedented industrial action, which will see nurses strike for the first time in the UK.

The main Stormont parties met with the head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service David Sterling on Tuesday night in an attempt to avert the action, which involves a range of healthcare workers.

The meeting did not achieve a breakthrough.

Health unions want financial commitments that workers will be paid the same as colleagues in the rest of the UK before calling off the strike.

With Stormont in cold storage due to the powersharing crisis, the region’s politicians are unable to take decisions on pay until devolution is restored.

And with civil servants insisting they can also not make major policy decisions on pay, the local parties have urged the Government to intervene.

Mr Smith has said finding a solution to the region’s health service crisis should be the top priority in a newly initiated talks process aimed at restoring powersharing.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill claimed Mr Smith refused to attend the meeting with the five parties and Mr Sterling on Tuesday evening.

“We met with senior civil servants today to urge them to do the right thing and provide pay parity to health workers in order to avert tomorrow’s strike action,” she said.

“There is consensus among party leaders that a resolution can be found by the British Secretary of State Julian Smith and civil servants.

“The pay and staffing issue must not be used as a political football within the talks.

“Party leaders restated there is consensus if the Executive is restored by 13 January that we will adopt a policy to award pay parity.

“On this basis, we invited the Secretary of State to come and meet with the five party leaders, where he would provide a commitment to deliver this in the event of no agreement by that date.

“Regrettably he refused to meet the leaders.”

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon also criticised Mr Smith.

“On the eve of significant strike action in our health service by healthcare workers who have been left with no other choice, it is unacceptable that the Secretary of State chose not to engage with parties this evening,” she said.

“What message does that send to healthcare staff? Party leaders have told the Secretary of State and senior civil servants that they should act.

“A positive decision on pay parity should be taken in the interests of healthcare staff and patients.”

Earlier, political leaders sent a joint letter to Mr Smith which they claimed allowed him to intervene.

Routine medical appointments will be cancelled, minor injury units closed and there will be delays to some ambulance responses if the action goes ahead.

Nurses in Northern Ireland are paid up to £4,677 less than counterparts in England and Wales.