21 October 1999 Edition
Huge support for nurses
The 26-Counties is now locked in the grip of a major industrial dispute, which sees 28,000 nurses on strike and normal patient care reduced to a fraction of its normal level. The vast majority of the public are solidly behind the nurses in their action.
The nurses' strike is the most recent example of the major inequalities which exist in the much vaunted `Celtic Tiger' economy and more specifically, it is the result of the inequality and lack of support given to the health service by successive Dublin governments.
The back-slapping hypocrisy of establishment politicians, technocrats, business leaders and certain journalists, all of whom continually boast of the success of the Irish economy, has been exposed.
In the context of health professionals, nurses' earnings are relatively low and their working conditions poor. But the plight of the nurses is more than matched by the scandal of other extremely low paid workers across the state.
The squalid reality of the Celtic Tiger is low paid workers, an underfunded health service, underfunded public transport, house prices out of the reach of ordinary citizens, a chronic shortage of local authority housing, a rampant heroin crisis, rural poverty and environmental deprivation in urban working-class areas.
Those who are producing the new wealth in this still rapidly growing economy are not sharing in its benefits and are being screwed to the wall under the cover of something called `Partnership'.
The strength of all workers lies in unity and nurses, ultimately, should unite with all those hundreds of thousands of workers on whose backs the fallacy of the Celtic Tiger is constructed.
The government has no excuse for its failure to address the issues behind the nurses' strike, which was a long time coming.
It was nurses who were forced to implement savage health cutbacks imposed by the government in the 1980s and to witness the results of hardship and worse on patients. The extent of corruption among Irish politicians in that era is now coming to light in the various tribunals. That reality partly explains the deep and widespread support for the striking nurses.
It is to be hoped that the solidarity and support shown so far towards the nurses will continue and that for the sake of patients as well as nurses, their action results speedily in a just resolution.
Nurses deserve justice - O Caoláin
What we are seeing in this nurses' strike is the final effort to end forever the legacy of structural inequality which has plagued our health service
The government has no excuse for its failure to address the issues which have led to the nurses' strike, according to Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin, who spoke in support of a motion of censure of Minister for Health and Children Brian Cowen in the Dáil on Tuesday night, 19 October. The Cavan/Monaghan TD also slammed a proposal that the Dáil should not sit next week. The Dáil will sit for a limited time on Thursday of next week, but only if the nurses' strike continues. The original proposal from the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour whips for no sitting next week was amended to allow for this. O Caoláin argued that the Dáil should sit as normal next week and that it was ``outrageous'' to do otherwise at the height of such a crisis situation.
Today began what is being described as the biggest strike in the history of the country, as nearly 30,000 nurses took to the picket-line. This morning, I joined the nurses on the picket line at Monaghan General Hospital and St. Davnett's. I have seldom met a more determined group of people, nor have I seen such a massive level of public support for any industrial action. I know from speaking to nurses, not just this morning, but over the past number of weeks, that they are, on the one hand, deeply disturbed that they have been forced into this action but equally resolved to see it through to a just and equitable outcome.
Nurses, and not Ministers for Health or Taoisigh, were the ones who had to turn patients away and watch patients suffer and die because of cutbacks
The nurses strike was a very long time in the offing. This government has no iota of an excuse for its failure to fully address the issues which have led to it. In an economy which this government boasts about to the world, we have a health service which is losing nurses, closing wards and growing waiting lists. We have the greatest budget surplus in the history of this state, yet this government cannot organise the health services to provide the care that is needed.
What we are seeing in this nurses' strike is the final effort to end forever the legacy of structural inequality which has plagued our health service. Because they were predominantly women, nurses were regarded for decades by the men in Church and State who controlled the health system as worthy only of menial tasks while education and lucrative medical practice was the exclusive preserve of the predominantly male elite of the medical profession.
Nurses have worked long and hard to overcome that legacy but nurses have still not been fully recognised as the caring, educated professionals they are. Key issues of pay, education, training, promotion and pension have not been resolved. The anger, sincerity and determination of the nurses gives the lie to the claim that this is only about money or that the nurses are leading a stampede of greedy public servants about to trample over Minister McCreevy like punters at a race meeting.
The Matron of the National Maternity Hospital wrote movingly in the Irish Times on Saturday of how nurses had to enforce, at hospital bed level, the savage health cuts imposed by successive governments in the 1980s. They, and not Ministers for Health or Taoisigh were the ones who had to turn patients away and watch patients suffer and die because of cutbacks. Only now do we know the full extent of the hypocrisy of the political leaders who imposed those cuts as they lived in extravagant luxury and allowed their wealthy friends to rob the Exchequer of money desperately needed for healthcare.
Is it any wonder that there is such anger among nurses and such support for them from ordinary people?
I welcome the talks now under way in conjunction with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I would echo the call of the nurses' representatives for direct and meaningful negotiations. I would also call on the Taoiseach to become directly involved and to deploy, in the resolution of this dispute, the negotiating skills which he has demonstrated in the peace process and elsewhere.
I conclude by extending my solidarity and that of Sinn Féin to the nurses and our hope that their action is successful in achieving justice.