Health workers demanding pay parity with their counterparts across the UK are piling pressure on Northern Irish parties to restore devolution.
“Less pay? No way!” was the chant outside Stormont as politicians made a fresh attempt to restore power-sharing government today.
Three years after the collapse of the administration, the health service is in crisis with nearly 300,000 people on the waiting list for a consultant.
With nurses planning to strike for the first time, the Northern Ireland Secretary said parliament buildings in Belfast could not remain vacant.
Julian Smith MP said: “The Good Friday Agreement was something that everybody worked incredibly hard on and this symbol, this empty symbol at this top of the hill, cannot go on any longer.
“We have to govern and we have to get our Northern Ireland parties governing in the best interests of Northern Ireland citizens.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA, who would return as first minister in the event of a breakthrough, accepted that the general election had created “momentum”.
“I listened very carefully during the election campaign and right throughout the election campaign, there was a desire to get Stormont back up and running again.
“Therefore, we are here to try to make that happen. I hope the other parties will too,” she added.
Her Sinn Fein counterpart Mary Lou McDonald TD said her party entered the talks without any “red lines” and wanted an agreement that would last.
She said: “What we have heard consistently from people is not simply that they want bums on seats at Stormont or around the executive table. What people actually want is delivery.
“They want answers and they want solutions and we want to be sure that we’re in a position to deliver that,” she added.
The results of the general election could prove to be a gamechanger in Northern Ireland in terms of the effort to see power-sharing revived.
The DUP lost a sixth of its vote and Sinn Fein lost one in four of their voters but the Alliance Party saw its share more than double.
That shift to the middle ground could create the context for the two larger parties to compromise rather than face another election.
If the parties have not reached agreement by 13 January, the Northern Ireland secretary will have little option but to call an Assembly election.