37,000 members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisations (INMO) are taking strike action over pay and staff shortages, which has left the Irish healthcare system with a 40,000 patient backlog. This number is sure to rise as the strikes are becoming longer and more widespread and the dispute prolongs. A 72-hour strike is scheduled to commence on Tuesday unless the situation is resolved.
The action of striking has played a major role in shaping the political and commercial landscape of Ireland. We had the 1913 Lockout, the Postal Strike of 1922, the 1932 builders strike, the 1945 Laundry strike. In the 1970s, Irish workers were considered as the most militant in the EEC. Hunger strikes in Irish history have been well documented and been sympathised to. The most recent one in Long Kesh prison in 1981. Striking in Ireland has proven to be predominantly effective, which is why people use this method to bring about the change that they seek.
It is easy to understand and sympathise with the nurses and midwives for taking the drastic step to proceed with strike action and their exasperated efforts to receive pay that is aligned with the current market. The government and Leo Varadkar himself have displayed a clear lack of comprehension with the everyday struggles that nurses endure. This was displayed by Leo’s widely unpopular comments that nurses and doctors should not take annual leave for the duration of last Christmas. Simon Harris pointed out that the INMO and the PNA signed up to a three-year Public Service Pay Agreement in 2017 that, when it concluded in 2020, would result in the restoration of pay for some staff. One must ponder what the public reaction would have been if the roles were reversed if the boom wasn’t back and it was the government trying to pull out of such an agreement.
However, INMO argues that the government have breached the agreement as they have failed to solve recruitment problems, highlighting the issue of unsafe staffing. Currently, a qualified nurse could be responsible for up to 15 patients at one time. 75 nurses left St. Vincent’s University Hospital in Ellen Park and no replacements were added putting even more pressure on the already stretched resources. It is clear that such conditions need to be changed.
1,500 nurses are trained to a very high standard annually in Ireland, many of whom are “forced” to emigrate, according to Phil Ní Sheaghdha, INMO’s General Secretary. Many other nurses are turning to agency work, which is a lot more lucrative. A student nurse has the potential to earn €840 for 33 hours, according to a reliable source. This is earned at a greater rate than a fully qualified nurse, employed by the HSE. The HSE is filling the void of emigrating nurses by outsourcing to agencies. INMO have claimed that the HSE are employing up to 1,000 agency nurses every day, which is costing the taxpayer in excess of €1.5 million every week. Outsourcing to this extent, for essential services needed to run the country effectively, is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
However, the striking action is also proving to be very problematic to the running of our healthcare system. The INMO claim that they are striking for nurse retention, yet as a result, working nurses are unable to be relieved of their shift over the duration of the strikes. The INMO argues that they are striking to ensure future patient safety, but a direct effect of this action is that current patients are left unattended.
The ones being directly hurt by the strikes are not those who have the power to bring about higher wages for the nurses. Leo and the Simon’s of this world are not suffering, unattended in hospital beds. Luas and bus driver’s strikes over the past few years were effective in bringing about pay rises but caused the ordinary person trying to get to work or education untold grief. Teacher’s striking caused student’s education to suffer. Yet it was still seen as a successful venture in the eyes of the teachers.
Paschal O’ Donoghue, the minister for Public Expenditure says that the national wage agreement cannot be breached as there would be a risk of other public service workers following the example of the INMO. The government fear that giving in to the nurse’s demand, will result in a similar action by some of the other 400,000 public servants. Possible strikes by the Gardaí and teachers have been mentioned as a defence. Do the government need to adopt a hard-line approach to dissuade civil servants from taking strike action in future? Perhaps when we have some of the most vulnerable in our society suffering as a direct consequence of the inability to come to a compromise, this is not an appropriate approach.
The stark reality of seeking change through striking is that people are dying as a result of these actions, and will continue to over the course of the scheduled strikes in the upcoming weeks. The number may not be quantifiable, but as people and the diseases that they suffer from are left untreated, patients are actively dying. It is, therefore, necessary that an agreement is reached rapidly.
The outcome of the nurses and midwives strike action is yet to be determined. Negotiations are ongoing in the Labour Court. With thousands of members of the public rallying in Dublin on Saturday and a recent iReach survey finding that up to 64% of Irish people are in support of the action, INMO are hopeful that they will bring about the changes their nurses and midwives deserve and that the public health service will no longer have to suffer.
By Peter Hoy – Politics CoEditor