Northern Ireland nurses strike over pay and patient safety

Nurses ‘have had enough’, partly because pay has fallen 15% in real terms, says RCN

More than 15,000 nurses in Northern Ireland are striking for better pay and increased staffing in a healthcare service mired in crisis.

Pickets appeared outside hospitals on Wednesday as 9,000 nurses from the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in the union’s 103-year history. The one-day action marked a serious escalation after weeks of industrial action by other healthcare workers.

About 6,500 other nurses who are in the Unison union also joined pickets in the cold weather, buffeted by wind and rain.

Northern Ireland has the worst hospital waiting lists in the UK, according to figures from the Department of Health. Some 300,000 people – a sixth of the population – are waiting for appointments. On average there is a four-year wait for knee and hip operations.

A picket line outside the Mater Infirmorum hospital in Belfast on Wednesday.
A picket line outside the Mater Infirmorum hospital in Belfast on Wednesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

The strike piled pressure on Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to restore the defunct power-sharing assembly and executive at Stormont, which collapsed three years ago in a row between the two parties.

The nurses provided skeletal staff to keep services such as chemotherapy, intensive care and palliative care operating. But what was believed to be the biggest industrial action of its kind in Northern Ireland stretched emergency departments and disrupted many planned operations and appointments.

“This was incredibly difficult,” RCN member Nuala Murray, who has been nursing for 37 years, told the BBC. “This is so unprecedented for us to have to strike but nurses are so fed up, they’ve just had enough. They just feel really passionate about this. Their voices need to be heard. Their patients aren’t safe and they need to do something.”

#safestaffingsaveslives RCN Strikenorthernbranch

— Ann Marie O'Neill (@annmarie_272) December 18, 2019

According to the RCN, nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen in real terms by 15% over eight years, aggravating a shortage of about 2,800 nurses, a vacancy rate proportionally higher than England and Wales.

Health workers want pay parity with their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. Unions agreed a 6.5% three-year pay rise for NHS staff, excluding doctors, last year. But the deal did not apply to Northern Northern because of the absence of devolved government.

Tony Stevens, the chief executive of the Northern health trust, said unions were overstating the problems in hospitals. “We believe that we provide safe services. It’s very busy for staff; they feel the pressure, I recognise that ... [but] I cannot sit here and accept and allow the public to think that we’re running unsafe services.”

Anger at fraying public services is believed to have contributed to drops in support for the DUP and Sinn Féin in last week’s general election.

A hospital picket line in Belfast.
A hospital picket line in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

On Tuesday night the two parties, along with the Alliance party, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party, met the head of Northern Ireland’s civil service, David Sterling, and the health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, to try to avert the strike. They also sent a joint letter to the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Julian Smith, expressing collective support for the restoration of pay parity.

Smith and his officials rebuffed the request, saying it needed authorisation from a functional, devolved government.

Smith and the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, are due to hold all-party talks at Stormont later on Wednesday in a renewed effort to revive the executive and assembly. Smith has vowed to call an assembly election if no deal is reached by 13 January.


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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