Nurses to be balloted on strike action for first time
THE biggest trade union representing nurses in Northern Ireland yesterday took the "unprecedented step" of voting to ballot its members on strike action.
Board officials from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) confirmed the move following weeks of speculation as to whether an eleventh-hour pay deal could be reached with the Department of Health.
It will be the first time in the union's 103-year-old history that it is preparing to take to the picket lines.
With nurses making up more than 40 per cent of the health service workforce, the action could be crippling.
The "burning issues", according to RCN director Pat Cullen, are a pay dispute and unsafe staffing levels.
The north's health and social care sector currently has 2,600 unfilled nursing jobs, resulting in massive reliance on agency staff at a cost to the health service of more than £32m last year.
It is also estimated there are thousands of vacant nursing posts in private care homes.
In an interview with The Irish News last month, Ms Cullen said they had "constantly tried to work with the department" and "drive home the message that we are going to hit a crisis".
The union chief claimed the workforce was "haemorrhaging" due to difficult working conditions and the worst pay in the NHS.
The north's annual nursing wages are £3,000 less than those "doing exactly the same job in England or Wales" and up to £5,000 less than their Scottish colleagues.
"In the individual nurse's mind, getting their pay brought up to an acceptable level is further down the agenda than safe staffing - but the two are inextricably linked because we cannot retain nurses here. It is a serious problem," she said.
Fiona Devlin, chair of the RCN NI Board, said they had been left with "no option" but to ballot members.
"The decision taken today is unprecedented in the history of the RCN... and is a result of the total inaction to address the staffing crisis facing health care in Northern Ireland. This situation is compounded by nurses in Northern Ireland being the lowest paid across the UK," she said.
The development comes after it emerged that a £5m campaign aimed at attracting 622 overseas nurses to work in the north's health trusts had reached less than a third of its target.
Overseen by the Department of Health, officials admitted that their pledge to have the new employees in post by next March had been put back by eight months.
The RCN branded the international recruitment drive a "failure".