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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Picket Lines

'The relationship between nurses and the HSE is like a bad marriage': Nurses on strike all over country

The dispute centres on pay, conditions and staffing levels.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 30th 2019, 2:00 PM

5228 Nurses Leah Farrell / Nurses Karlin Crombie, Ciara Clancy and Michelle Brady at the picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Leah Farrell / /

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR told the Dáil today it is not correct to say more nurses are leaving the country than are being recruited. 

Varadkar faced a barrage of questions about the nurses and midwives’ strike which is taking place across the country today.

The health workers are calling for better pay and conditions.

Today is the first of six planned 24-hour strikes by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s (INMO) 37,000 members.

Picket lines are present outside hospitals throughout Ireland, with further strikes planned for 5, 7, 12, 13 and 14 February if a number of issues are not addressed.

The dispute centres on pay, conditions and staffing levels. The INMO has argued that a pay rise of 12% is needed to bring their members into line with other graduate health professionals, and to attract and retain staff. 

Labour Court discussions attempting to resolve the situation ended without agreement on Monday night.

Speaking in the Dáil today, the Taoiseach said nurse numbers has increased by 3,000, adding that it is not correct to say that more nurses are leaving than are being recruited.

The number of staff nurses working in Ireland fell by 1,754 (6%) between 2008 and 2018, despite an increased demand on the health service. The vast majority (95%) of INMO members voted in favour of going on strike.

Sinn Féin leader Mary McDonald asked the Taoiseach if the photos of nurses in Australia saying they would like to come home are “fake news”. 

“Are those images doctored – excuse the pun,” she asked. 

McDonald said it is not satisfactory for him to “passively sit on the sidelines while this strike is on”.

Having met with nurses this morning, she said the message to the Taoiseach is clear. “Tell him to engage.”

Varadkar said he believed the dispute can only be resolved in a way that is fair for taxpayers – reiterating the government line that the current public pay deal runs until 2020 and cannot be changed.  


INMO members are continuing to provide lifesaving care and emergency response teams during the strike action, but thousands of operations and clinic appointments have been cancelled.

Psychiatric nurses also plan to strike this week and next week, citing similar concerns.

5139 Nurses Leah Farrell / INMO members at the picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Leah Farrell / /

The HSE has asked members of the public only to attend emergency services in hospitals today if it is absolutely necessary. 

Speaking yesterday, Dr Colm Henry said the HSE is in active dialogue with strike committees at every site to ensure a “responsive and safe” service. 

People may experience increased delays of course because other aspects of unscheduled care such as local injury units or acute medical assessment units will not be open.

Nurses and midwives are braving snow in many areas, with the start of the picket line in Sligo being slightly delayed due to the adverse weather conditions. spoke to nurses outside the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin this morning.

Staff nurse Dara Ann O’Malley said she and her colleagues didn’t want to go on strike but told us: “It’s something we feel like we have to do.

I feel like the relationship between the HSE and nurses now is like a bad marriage – he’ll only appreciate her when she’s gone, and we just have to take a stand. The health service is kind of imploding at the moment.

“Five years ago when I started there was a CNM (clinical nurse manager) and four staff nurses every morning and now when I arrive to work there is a CNM and two staff nurses, and more often than not it’s the CNM and one staff nurse.

We’re working constantly understaffed, I don’t think people appreciate how dangerous it can be. And the people who are left in the theatre, on the wards, are under intense pressure.

Abina Reilly, a ward manager in the Mater, said she fears today won’t be the only day of strike action.

“I suspect this isn’t going to be the only day, unfortunately. I would love to think that we could be out for one day and that we could get the government to listen … We may have to be doing this again next week.

This is extremely serious, this is something that we do not take lightly and there has been an enormous amount of planning to ensure that we are providing safe care – it’s emergency care, it’s life-preserving care, but we are doing that, so our colleagues are working inside on reduced numbers ensuring that we’re keeping our patients safe.

“I think the HSE has to listen, this is really for the future of nurses and for the future of the health service, we need the nurses. Every day we are cancelling patients because we don’t have enough beds and we don’t have enough nurses for those beds.

“It’s extremely difficult for all of us to face patients knowing they have [had appointments] cancelled numerous times, they’re sitting on waiting lists, it’s very hard to stand over. As a nurse, we want to be proud of the care we give, we want to be proud of the health service that we work in,” Reilly told us. 

‘Sleepless nights’ 

Aedeen Burns, one of the Mater’s site nurse managers, said a lot of nurses and midwives had “sleepless nights” in the lead up to the strike.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of the nurses here this morning and we’ve done this with a very heavy heart.

Our interests have always been our patients’ safety and we cannot sustain that if we don’t have sustainable staffing levels and we cannot sustain that unless we have fair pay for the work that we’re doing.

Burns said every ward in a hospital “delivers complex care every day”, with the demand on nurses always increasing.

“Every year the complexities increase. There are people on ordinary wards now who, without a shadow of a doubt, would have been in high dependency units before for a number of days – they’re straight out to the wards now.”

Public support 

Members of the public have expressed support for the nurses and midwives, in person and by beeping their car horns as they drive by.

The nurses we spoke to thanked members of the public and patients for their support, saying the reaction has been “so, so positive” as people understand the stress they are under.

An opinion poll has shown that three-quarter of Irish people support the strike action.

Speaking about the strike earlier this month, the Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, said increasing nurses’ salaries could lead to other public service workers seeking pay rises.

He acknowledged “the immense contribution that our nurses make in our hospitals and primary care centres every day” but added: “While I am very much aware of this contribution, I am equally aware of the contribution that many other public servants make to our economy and society.”

His department believes that the estimated €300 million cost of the nurses’ claim would trigger knock-on claims across the public service. Donohoe noted that when gardaí received pay rises totalling €50 million in 2016, an additional €120 million had to be paid to other public servants.

‘Consequences to strike action’

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1′s Today with Seán O’Rourke, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the government appreciates the pressure healthcare workers are under and is committed to reforming the sector.

“Nurses do a great job in difficult circumstances but, as the Taoiseach outlined yesterday and I think the Minister for Health has also outlined, we have a public sector pay agreement.

“The nurses are part of that agreement, and to breach that now would fundamentally undermine public sector pay policy in Ireland. I don’t believe that Ireland and I don’t believe that the government can responsibly do that, knowing the cost of it.”

Coveney reiterated that if nurses and midwives are given pay increases, other unions would “rightly” seek the same for their members – leading to huge expense.

He said the government wants to work with the INMO to address as many of their concerns as possible, within the confines of the current pay agreement.

The government has sought legal advice about the possibility of penalising nurses for breaking the terms of public sector pay deal.

When asked about this, Coveney said: “We haven’t threatened that, what we’ve said is that we’ll take legal advice on it. That is part of the public sector pay agreement, that there are consequences to strike action.”

With reporting by Nicky Ryan

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