BELFAST: Tens of thousands of public sector workers walked off the job across Northern Ireland on Thursday to protest political deadlock that has left them without pay increases, and the region without a functioning government.
Schools were closed, hospitals offered a skeleton service and authorities warned people not to travel unless it was essential as road-gritting crews joined the strike in the middle of a bitterly cold snap.
The 24-hour strike by about 150,000 teachers, nurses, bus drivers and others is the biggest walkout in years in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom with its own regional government. That government has not functioned for almost two years since one of the two power-sharing parties walked out in a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules.
The Democratic Unionist Party has refused to return to government with Irish nationalists Sinn Fein. Under power-sharing rules established under Northern Ireland’s peace process, the administration must include both British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Thousands of striking workers held a rallies in Belfast and other cities, calling for the DUP to return to government and for U.K. officials to give public sector workers in Northern Ireland the same pay raises that employees in other parts of the country have received.
The U.K.'s Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said the British government had agreed on a 3 billion pound ($3.8 billion) financial package, but that it could only be delivered if Northern Ireland’s government was back up and running.
“This package has been on the table since before Christmas and will remain there, available on day one for an incoming Northern Ireland Executive,” he said.
Workers said politicians in both Belfast and London were using them as political pawns.
Teacher Linda Millar said she just wanted pay parity with the rest of the U.K.
“We are losing teachers left, right and center to Doha, Dubai, everywhere,” she said. “The education system is crumbling. Our buildings are crumbling.”