NURSES in the RCN union came out on strike for the first time in the union’s 103-year history in the north of Ireland yesterday, joining other health workers at 21 locations demanding that the severe shortage of staff is urgently addressed as patients lives are being put at risk.
Outside the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast there was a mass picket with hundreds of nurses, and other health workers waving flags and banners, cheering as passing motorists blasted their horns in support.
On the picket line, RCN nurse Louise Mitchel said: ‘This is about more than just nurses asking for more pay, this is about the entire health service in Northern Ireland. Our nurses are being paid less than the rest of Great Britain.’
Peter Ferguson, staff nurse at the Royal Victoria, said: ‘Pay is just a part of it. This is also about patient safety. At the moment there are just not enough nurses to do the job safely. Patients are being put at risk every day because of shortages of staff.’
The government in the north of Ireland – Stormont – has not been running for over two years.
Ferguson added: ‘I think that the politicians have to take the majority of the blame here as well. If we had Stormont up and running things could be dealt with more efficiently.’
There are currently 2,800 vacant nursing posts and nurse pay has fallen by 15% in real terms in recent years making nurses in Northern Ireland the lowest paid in the UK.
Dame Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the RCN, said: ‘This is a moment that every nurse wishes had never come, but faced with an abject failure to tackle unsafe staffing levels and severe pay inequality with colleagues from across the UK, our members in Northern Ireland are saying enough is enough.
‘Nurses are taking a stand for their patients, and also for their colleagues, and it is about time that the powers that be finally sat up and took notice because the crisis in the HSCNI (Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland) cannot be allowed to continue.
‘To every one of our members in Northern Ireland taking this stand, I want you to know that the RCN, and its entire membership, are right behind you.’
RCN Northern Ireland Director Pat Cullen said: ‘Our members who are taking this historic action have been left with little choice. Patient care is being compromised by unsafe staffing levels and nurses’ pay has been left to dwindle and fall behind that of colleagues from across the UK. When 92% of those balloted said they would take strike action to protect patients last month, it should have kick-started the Department of Health into finding a solution, but it hasn’t.
‘With around 2,800 vacant nursing posts in the HSCNI, record levels of money being spent on agency staff to plug gaps and nurses’ pay sliding further and further behind the rest of the UK, our members have had enough.
‘Today, our members in Northern Ireland are making clear to those in power that they and their patients will not be ignored and this crisis allowed to worsen.’