UK-wide Strike Action Hits NI Hard

Rush-hour traffic around Belfast was light this morning even though public transport, schools and hospital services were all being hit hard as public sector workers across Northern Ireland strike in the biggest walk-out for decades over ongoing Government cuts and future pension provision.

Thousands of workers appear to have taken the day off locally while it has been reported that as many as two million people across the UK are actually joining the strike.

No bus or train services will be operating today in NI and two thirds of schools and colleges will be closed while in hospitals, many non-emergency procedures have been postponed and many services delivered by councils will grind to a halt.

Yesterday, extensive planning to keep disruption to hospital patients and clients at a minimum during the planned public sector strike was revealed.

A spokesperson from the Department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety said: "Arrangements have been put in place to ensure that there is essential cover for those requiring emergency services, including some outpatients, inpatients and the most vulnerable who require care in a community setting and in homes.

"There will be a cancellation of non-critical planned procedures and appointments.

"While every effort will be made to maintain services as far as possible it is likely that patients and clients may experience delays on the day. Patients should check with their local health care provider for information on their individual circumstances."

Trade union rallies and pickets are being organised across Northern Ireland.

The main rally will take place in Belfast city centre at lunchtime, with others happening in Londonderry, Newry, Downpatrick, Omagh, Ballymena, Portadown, Magherafelt and Cookstown.

However, the move has seen a split at Stormont with the SDLP Deputy Leader Dolores Kelly saying the party is foursquare behind those taking industrial action.

"The necessity for public sector workers to make their voices heard will not be more keenly felt than when taking to the picket-lines to protest this scurrilous attack on their pensions, and the SDLP is backing them all the way.

"Our Minister, Alex Attwood, was the only member of the Executive to vote against pension increases - a vote we are very proud of as a party. He also pointed out that NILGOSC pensioners should be exempt from any increase.

"It puts into stark relief the actions of the DUP and Sinn Fein, who voted to do the Tory-led Westminster Government's bidding in attacking the conditions of our public servants, particularly the 44,000 NILGOSC members, including fire officers and staff in education and transport.

"What is important to remember is that, were the Executive to refuse to implement NILGOSC pension increases, it would not cost the NI Budget a single penny - but this is a piece of simple arithmetic that has escaped the rest of the Executive.

"We call on the Executive to make a decisive and positive move to protect public sector pensions and support Alex Attwood's demand that they reverse their September 22 decision to increase contributions on NILGOSC pensions. The SDLP and will be making that plain in a motion to the Assembly next week," she said.

SDLP representatives across Northern Ireland will be visiting picket lines today and attending rallies in support of public sector pensions, while in London, SDLP MPs will be joining other opposition members in holding the Westminster government to account as part of an opposition debate backed by trade unions.

"We recognise the economic difficulties we are in at present, and our representatives are working flat out to help nurse the economy back to health, but we will be standing shoulder to shoulder with hard-working public servants who only want a fair deal for a job well done," she concluded.

By contrast, Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt has been reported as having crossed the picket line at Stormont and told workers to recognise the realities of the economic recession.

Mr Nesbitt said his party supported the right to strike, but told the BBC he is not a member of a trade union but insetad had been elected to resolve issues such as re-balancing the economy.

The UUP's Basil McCrea, Joanne Dobson, Roy Beggs, John McCallister and David McNarry also crossed the picket line while DUP MLAs Jonathan Craig and Tom Buchanan and TUV leader Jim Allister also entered Stormont.


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