Get back to work, protesters tell Northern Ireland Assembly members

Hundreds of people have gathered at Stormont to protest over the ongoing lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Around 200 demonstrators braved wintry weather in Belfast to call on Assembly members to “get back to work”, expressing anger at the almost £9 million (€10.4m) paid in wages to MLAs during the two years since powersharing collapsed.

The protest, titled #Back2Work, was the latest event staged by a region-wide movement led by people exasperated by the impasse.

Protests at Stormont (David Young/PA)

The We Deserve Better campaign held rallies across the North last year, while at the start of January its founder – Co Fermanagh teacher Dylan Quinn – walked 90 miles from Enniskillen to Stormont to highlight the message.

Workers in the health and education sectors addressed Saturday’s rally at the front of Parliament Buildings, laying out in stark terms the worsening impact of the political deadlock.

Despite the rain the mood was upbeat, with young and old placard-waving protesters entertained by a samba band.

A community choir also led the crowd in singing, with lyrics of popular songs adapted to suit the theme of the day.

The demonstration attracted protesters of all ages (David Young/PA)

One of the event organisers Gareth Burns, a gardener from Kircubbin, Co Down, said the public had already established that they “deserved better”, so now they were “demanding better” from their MLAs.

“We want to send the message out that we don’t want another year to go by without a devolved administration in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It’s really about the issues associated with all of that – people in all the various public services are beginning to suffer now and people in the communities are beginning to suffer as well.

“The emphasis is on those services that are suffering as a result of the impasse.”

The rally was staged to mark the two-year anniversary of the formal dissolution of the Assembly.

The last Democratic Unionist/Sinn Féin-led coalition imploded amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.

Protest organiser Gareth Burns from Co Down (David Young/PA)

The wrangle over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

A number of attempts to find a negotiated deal to restore the institutions have ended in failure.

There is no imminent prospect of another talks process, with the crisis seemingly in drift as political attention focuses on Brexit.

With the UK Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster, the North has operated in a political limbo land for two years, with senior civil servants being left to run public services.

A community choir sing in front of Parliament Buildings (David Young/PA)

Those civil servants are seriously hamstrung, with ongoing uncertainty over what decisions they are able to make in the absence of elected ministers.

As a consequence, numerous governmental decisions are in abeyance with many major policy initiatives in cold storage.

Mr Burns said Brexit was not an excuse for inaction.

“It would be very easy for the MLAs to say with Brexit and everything we’ll just leave it until the autumn time,” he said.

“We are already into our third year that has been interrupted by this Assembly impasse.

“So we are saying we want to see the MLAs in the Assembly tomorrow, because public services need it and the growth and prosperity of Northern Ireland needs it as well.”

- Press Association

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