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'This campaign has to succeed, it is our time': Tens of thousands march in support of nurses and midwives

About 37,000 INMO members are engaging in strike action over pay and staffing levels.

Updated Feb 9th 2019, 5:24 PM

nurses 298_90563886 Demonstrators at the INMO rally in Dublin city today. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

“EVERYWHERE WE GO, people always ask us, who we are, and where do we come from. And we always tell them, we’re the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses. And the midwives, the mighty, mighty midwives.”

That was one of the many chants echoing throughout Dublin city today as tens of thousands of people attended a rally organised by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Association.

About 37,000 nurses and midwives are currently engaging in strike action over pay and staffing levels.

A huge public rally, organised by the INMO, marched from the Garden of Remembrance to Government Buildings this afternoon. The INMO said upwards of 45,000 people attended the demonstration but this figure has yet to be confirmed.

INMO members have held a number of 24-hour strikes since 30 January, with further strikes planned on 12, 13, 14, 19 and 21 February.

Nurses and midwives have said they are underpaid and understaffed, meaning they cannot safely do their jobs.

They have argued that a pay rise of 12% is needed to bring them into line with other graduate health professionals, and to attract and retain staff. 

Around 6,000 Psychiatric Nurses Association members are also engaging in industrial action, citing similar concerns about pay and staff retention.

An opinion poll of more than 1,000 adults carried out by Ámarach Research for Claire Byrne Live earlier this week found that almost eight in 10 people (78%) support the continuation of strike action.

This level of support was evident at today’s rally, with a huge number of people turning up to show their support.

The INMO signed up to the public sector pay agreement along with teachers and garda unions, but they have argued that the government has breached the agreement by failing to solve recruitment and retention problems in the healthcare sector.

‘Forced emigration’ 

Speaking at the rally outside Government Buildings this afternoon, General Secretary of the INMO, Phíl Ní Sheaghdha, said nurses would be “bolstered” by the huge turnout, ahead of the continuation of talks at the Labour Court.

“When the recession hit and when the moratorium was introduced in the health service in 2007, the cuts that nurses took were actually much greater than the cuts of other public servants, and they were specifically targeted at our younger new graduates.”

nurses 398_90563898 Phíl Ní Sheaghdha, General Secretary of the INMO (far left), at the rally today. Source: Sam Boal

Ní Sheaghdha said this led to a “forced” emigration which is “still visible” in the health sector, noting that Irish nurses are supporting the strike from the UK, US, Australia and Dubai.

“This campaign has to succeed, we do not have a choice, it is our time,” Ní Sheaghdha told the rally.

“In 2019, I assure you there is no further argument left to deny you equal pay.

“Equal pay for nurses with other graduates is something we have strived for, is something that we seek and is something that we intend to get because, without it, nursing and midwifery will still be considered a little bit of a vocation and a little bit of ‘girls going to work’ and girls just not having the right to stand up for themselves,” she stated. 

Women standing together 

Ní Sheaghdha said she believes part of the reason nurses and midwives are paid less than other professions is because the sector is mainly staffed by women.

“I can’t tell you how many times people say, ‘Do you think it’s because you’re mainly women?’ I think the answer is yes, but when women stand together, I’ll tell you this much, it’s very difficult to argue against them,” she said to huge cheers from the crowd.

Ní Sheaghdha said the challenge facing nurses and midwives is “huge”, stating: “We have been blamed for practically everything from Brexit to children’s hospital (the cost of which is spiralling and could end up topping €2 billion).

“We’re not denying that there are problems in the economic fabric of our little nation … but we don’t think that our social fabric is secondary and that our public health service should be something that is sacrificed each time there is a recession – that’s not good enough. Nurses and midwives do not believe it’s good enough and certainly will not stand for it.”

Ní Sheaghdha thanked patients and the general public for their support of the industrial action, saying: “This is the beginning, this is the line in the sand.”

Other pay increases

The government fears that if it agrees to increase nurses’ salaries, other public servants such as teachers and gardaí will also seek pay increases.

Speaking about the strike action, Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe previously 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.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris have echoed these sentiments when asked about the strikes. Varadkar last week said that nurse numbers have 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.

Nurses 416_90563897 A demonstrator at today's rally. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Speaking to TheJournal.ie at the rally, Aisling O’Neill, a nurse at one of the major Dublin hospitals, explained why she was marching today.

“We’re here today because we’re finally taking a stand, and saying we don’t have safe staffing levels. We train 1,500 nurses a year for export, and we’ve decided now we had enough. 

The whole day you’re re-prioritising your care and you know you’re not doing your best for people … it’s just extremely stressful.

Commenting on the turnout today, O’Neill said she wasn’t surprised: “We’ve received phenomenal support on the picket line – any patients I’ve had to cancel appointments for have rang up and said they fully support the nurses.

We’re out of our box now and we’re not going back.

Another nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, told us she moved from the public to private sector partially due to inadequate staffing levels. She worked in Temple Street Children’s University Hospital for 10 years and the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital before then.

“Part of the reason I left Temple Street was because … the staffing levels are not adequate for the care that you have to give to patients and it is unsafe. This whole thing is going to benefit patients as well as nurses. Things have to change.”

She said she was not surprised by the level of public support being received by nurses and midwives, noting: “I’ve been picketing over in Mullingar and the support from the public has been phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.”

She said the government’s stance that it can’t pay nurses more is “nonsense”.

With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha

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Órla Ryan

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