Thousands of public sector workers have taken to the streets across Northern Ireland in the biggest strike action in the region’s recent history.
A mass rally in Belfast heard calls for Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to release pay awards for workers and also for the DUP to end its boycott of Stormont.
Other demonstrations have taken place at Guildhall Square in Londonderry, Omagh court house and Enniskillen town hall.
An estimated 150,000 public sector workers took part in the walkouts over pay, with trade unions warning that action will escalate in the future if their pay demands are not met.
Police mounted a significant security operation and said the rallies passed off without incident.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has been urged to intervene to release funding to make delayed pay awards in the absence of devolved government.
He has refused, saying the matter is a devolved one.
Following early morning pickets at hospitals, schools and public buildings, a number of feeder parades marched towards Belfast City Hall where a large crowd gathered for a rally addressed by multiple trade unions representatives.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy called on Mr Heaton-Harris to end his “failed political strategy” and award a pay rise to workers.
Mark McTaggart of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was keeping Stormont in suspension because of his concerns over the Irish Sea border.
He added: “Yet he is more than happy to have a sea border for pay for public sector workers.”
Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT added: “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.”
Speaking at a picket at Stormont, Carmel Gates, general secretary of Nipsa, said: “My members are angry and they are not going to back down.
“This is not something which is a temporary fight. They are so angry at how they have been treated.
“This is the beginning, we will escalate. The Secretary of State needs to know that, this is not the end.”
Linda Millar, a teacher at Ballyclare Secondary School, 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.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long met striking workers at the Ulster Hospital and said that political instability at Stormont had contributed to public sector fragility in Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill met striking workers in Magherafelt.
She said: “It is a very difficult day for our public sector workers.
“However, they feel forced to take to the picket lines this morning in defence of what is reasonable and fair, which is fair pay and working conditions for the job they do for us all on a daily basis.
“I regret the fact that they are being forced on to the picket lines this morning. I regret the fact that they have had to take this action. However, I absolutely understand it because they feel like they have nowhere else to turn.
“I can only hope that (DUP leader) Jeffrey Donaldson is listening and hears the plight of the workers and, even at this late juncture, makes the right call and joins with the rest of us around that executive table and let us do our best to try and support these workers and ensure they have proper pay and conditions.”
Public sector workers in Northern Ireland have not received pay uplifts given to counterparts elsewhere in the UK, due to the ongoing political impasse at Stormont.
The Government has offered a financial package worth more than £3 billion to accompany the return of a devolved executive in Belfast.
While the package includes money to make the outstanding pay awards, Mr Heaton-Harris has made clear it will not be made available unless Stormont returns.
There has been no functioning powersharing government in Northern Ireland for almost two years due to a DUP boycott of the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The DUP has resisted calls to drop its veto and return to Stormont to enable the pay rises to be implemented.
The party has accused the UK Government of “political blackmail” and has said the pay issue should be dealt with separately from the impasse over trade.
The strike is having a major impact, with schools closed, hospitals offering only Christmas Day-level services, public transport cancelled and limited gritting of the roads in 0C temperatures.
The Department for Infrastructure has urged people not to travel unless it is “absolutely essential”, saying there will only be limited gritting on a small number of roads including the M1, M2, A1 and A4.
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.”