150,000 public sector workers walk out in Northern Ireland's biggest strike in recent history

An estimated 150,000 public sector workers have taken part in the biggest strike in Northern Ireland's recent history, with trade unions warning action will escalate if their pay demands are not met.

Pay parity with the rest of the UK is the core issue for workers angry at a widening wage gap and political paralysis.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has been urged to release funding to make delayed pay awards in the absence of the devolved government at Stormont, but he has refused, saying the matter is a devolved one.

From early morning, striking workers braved sub-zero temperatures to gather at picket lines across Northern Ireland. Schools were shut and a greatly reduced health service was operational as teachers, nurses and support staff joined the protest.

Public transport was cancelled and many roads were not gritted.

Striking workers gathered at Stormont and the Northern Ireland Office headquarters in Belfast city centre.

Speaking at Stormont, Carmel Gates, general secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) trade union, said workers were being used as a "political pawn" by the Northern Ireland secretary.

She said: "It shows the anger of public sector workers who haven't had a decent pay rise in more than 10 years. Now we believe we are being used as a political pawn in a game by the secretary of state."

Public sector workers in Northern Ireland have not received pay raises given to counterparts elsewhere in the UK, due to the ongoing political impasse at Stormont.

The UK government has offered a financial package worth more than £3bn to accompany the return of a devolved executive in Belfast, but Mr Heaton-Harris says it is conditional on the return of Stormont, and that he cannot release the money - including almost £600m to address pay - unless this happens.

There has been no power-sharing government in Northern Ireland for almost two years due to a DUP boycott of the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Yesterday saw the seventh failed attempt to elect a speaker and get the Assembly and Executive up and running.

In the absence of any political breakthrough - and the accompanying money from Westminster - workers and unions have vowed to continue the widescale industrial action that brought many aspects of everyday life in Northern Ireland to a halt today.

Striking workers say they do not accept Northern Ireland secretary's position

"We're here to embarrass… Chris Heaton-Harris!" was the chant from striking workers gathered outside the Northern Ireland Office HQ.

Whether the secretary of state for Northern Ireland was blushing inside the building is unknown, but he is bearing a lot of the blame for today's unprecedented strike action.

Time and time again, workers on the freezing picket lines told us how they simply don't accept Mr Heaton-Harris's position that he can't release funding until the devolved government at Stormont returns.

"Legislation can be changed to extend elections", said Edel Coulter, a haematology nurse at Belfast City Hospital. "So I don't see why it can't be changed to give us our pay."

'I have to future-proof this profession'

Marie Irwin, an outreach teacher who works with special needs pupils in Belfast told Sky News she was taking part in the industrial action as a last resort.

"We're taking this strike action under duress," she said.

"It's not something I want to do, I don't want to go on strike, I want to be out working with my pupils who need their routine.

"But I have to future-proof this profession, and I have to future-proof education for my own children and for my pupils, and the only way to do that is by collective action, which is to strike."

She blamed the local parties more than the UK government.

"When grown men and women can sit around a table and eat sandwiches that are paid for by the taxpayers, and throw their rattles out of the pram and discuss money and say no, I'm not working with that party because of [Brexit] protocol issues, and get it sorted, then I blame them," she said.

"We blame the politicians for this, we just want them to sit down and sort out an agreement.

"It's so frustrating to see Chris Heaton-Harris saying we can't release that money when we know he can. He now needs to release the funds."