Workers gathered, toasts were made, and the warmth of hot whiskies wafted through the air as they were brought down on a tray from the Lough Inn bar to the Round ‘O’. Approaching a cluster of Education Authority workers, a barman inquired, “Anyone in the mood for a hot whiskey?” The workers gladly accepted, fostering cross-union camaraderie with cheers exchanged before the day’s main events, all while relishing the much-needed warmth in the chilly weather.

One individual, employed within the Education Authority, accepted a drink and shared insights into the striking group: “We currently have about 30 members here. We serve all of Fermanagh, encompassing bus drivers, classroom assistants, bus escorts, kitchen workers, and various other roles from across the Education Authority.”

Last week saw numerous displays of solidarity for the striking workers, culminating in a march of around 1,000 participants through Enniskillen, concluding with a rally in the Diamond where they voiced their demand for change.

Gradually, the workers made their way into the Round ‘O’, representing a diverse range of unions, including Unite the Union, NIPSA, Unison, GMB, Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU), NASUWT, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), and the University and College Union (UCU).

When questioned about the reason for the strike, James Carey, secretary for the Enniskillen Jobs and Benefits Office NIPSA branch, explained, “I’ve had the same conversation a year ago and on the picket line for the last 10 to 12 years. It all boils down to the austerity measures imposed by the Tory government, trickling down through the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is an ongoing issue, and it’s worsening with each passing year.”

Protecting public services Explaining the core reason, he is on the picket line he said: “First and foremost, I would say to protect public services. The last few times the union has been on strike, it’s been over our pay but to me, there is a bigger picture. It is that it is a protection of public services. It means your roads, your health, your education, everything.”

As the picket formed, pizza boxes delivered from Ninth Avenue, Enniskillen were passed around, the boxes floated through the crowd around the Unions as workers formed to begin their march.

As the picket moved off, Caoimhe Quigley, a Unison member and Biomedical Scientist based in South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) said: “ Unison has joined the rest of the public sector unions here. We are calling for the restoration of pay parity, we have been out here since 2019.

“We got it [pay parity] in 2019 but since 2019 we have been falling behind the rest of our colleagues in England doing the same job.

“We are fed up being here, no one wants to be here but we are showing up and saying ‘we’re here we’re doing our jobs and it’s time you paid us for doing it’.”

Workers left the Round ‘O’ as traffic was stopped to allow them to march on the road as they shouted: “What do we want? Fair Pay! When do we want it? Now!”

The hundreds in the march filed along the Brook, much to the interest of onlookers with some stopping to clap the marchers while others watched the movement. One family watched out their window as children waved to the workers.

Mairead McClintock, a specialist nurse who works in SWAH and a member of the Royal College of Nursing said: “Spirits are high but we are a bit disappointed that we are still here five years later. We are very disappointed in our lack of political leadership to bring forward any of our funding for our national health service that is beyond crisis.”

She received nods from her colleagues gathered around as she said: “You can’t underestimate the strength of feeling among everybody in Northern Ireland at the minute, never mind public sector workers and I think we are all concerned about the state of our NHS.

“[We] see day in daily the pressure that is on the services, and the lack of services, particularly in our area.”

Crossing the historic West Bridge, the weather remained still as the shouts of the workers echoed and reverberated around Ann Street and Darling Street.

Marching proudly behind the NAUSWT banner and waving flags along with colleagues was Pat McGovern, a secondary school teacher who expressed great concern for the future of the profession given the pay disparity.

“The teachers in NI are the worst paid in any of the jurisdictions in the British Isles. We look at our neighbours, we are haemorrhaging staff right across the Border,” he said.

“[Pay] is definitely putting them off and it’s also a case where people are looking further afield and thinking of the future when the teachers like me retire, who is coming through to take our roles? There is nobody there.”

Many of those who were on the picket last week have been on strike previously within the last 12 months. One group who have taken several days of strike action are UCU members at South West College (SWC).

Gabriel Keown, Branch Secretary UCU for SWC said: “Today is the 15th day in a series of strike action that our union has been taking for better pay and fairer worker conditions.

“Probably today is the most important day as it is the collaborative effort of all the unions right across Fermanagh and right across Northern Ireland.”

“This coming together we hope will send a direct message to first and foremost, the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris to please, please, please release the money that we are entitled to and to stop using us as political pawns in a blackmail game that is currently being played.”

Making a direct appeal to those in power, Mr. Keown said: “I would appeal to our politicians to do the right thing and am appealing to them to resume their seat in Stormont. It is vitally important that this day sends that message and we don’t have to have further action post today.”

As the strike proceeded through the town centre, there was interest from above as workmen on roofs were seen watching the march. As the crowd gathered the hundreds who marched were joined by others on the Diamond to listen to platform speakers.

Among those gathered were young children and teenagers standing in solidarity with their parents, some even brought their dogs, and one teddy was seen in the arms of one of the youngest demonstrators who held his green monkey teddy in one arm and was joined by his sister who held a Unison poster.

Politicians were also sighted at the rally with elected representatives from Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the SDLP all present at various points during the proceedings of the day, some joining in on the march as members of their respective trade unions.

As the events came to a close, many of those on strike dispersed, some visited the Gourmet Grocer who displayed a simple sign: “Free soup for all strikers” or visited The Crisp Shack for special offer ‘strike burgers’.

Aine Toal, a primary school teacher for over 30 years summed up the feeling of many of the teachers: “Enough is enough, our children deserve better and it’s for the next generation. We are here to ensure the quality education they receive is the same as in our generation.”

This was echoed by her fellow teacher and INTO member Joanne Quinn who summed up the feeling of all those who marched through Enniskillen for this historic march: “Coming up together there was a real sense that we are in it together and want to make a change.”