This is not the first occasion on which I have raised my serious concerns about the apparent hands-off approach to this dispute. There has been a certain aloofness in the attitude of the Minister and the Government to the pay negotiation. The Minister may have been justified in the past in saying he wanted to stay away from the conciliation and arbitration machinery while unions balloted their members. Now that the pay offer has been rejected twice, the time has come when the Minister must step in. Perhaps he has already decided to do that. The nurses' unions throughout the country are calling for intervention by the Minister. He must respond to that request and hold a direct meeting with the Nursing Alliance.
There are 26,000 nurses who have a strong case to make regarding their pay and conditions which have fallen seriously behind. They have put up with a lack of progress on their pay and conditions and have been prepared to take on board the various changes in the structure of nursing without getting adequate recognition.
If the national strike goes ahead, as seems increasingly likely, the health service will grind to a halt, probably within hours of its commencement depending on how it proceeds. The chaos that will result is unthinkable. The Minister must act now while there is still time. A strike here will undermine social partnership and shatter the chances of getting another national agreement which would be bad for the State.
The nurses' dispute has been badly handled. Aloofness from the negotiations was a miscalculation and reduced the chances of a settlement but the intervention by the Minister for Finance in the dispute on 10 November, when he told the nurses they had made a grave or a gross error of judgement, was a serious mistake. It did not help the Minister for Health but most particularly it did not help the nurses' unions. His comments insulted nurses who work under increasing and immense pressure and hardened attitudes in the dispute.
The contribution of the 26,000 nurses must be recognised in their pay and conditions. Their aspirations in relation to pay and conditions can be met within theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. In the past, as my colleague, Deputy Ahern, said recently on “Questions and Answers” under the Programme for National Recovery and Programme for Economic and Social Progress, which were much more stringently controlled than is the Programme for Competitiveness and Work, radiographers, dental assistants, fire brigade staff and hospital doctors could be accommodated and their pay and conditions were improved despite the stringent financial controls.
Nurses are the people in the health service who are at the coalface. The Minister must recognise that. They are the people who take abuse from the patients and from the families of the patients. They are the people in charge. A ward sister in a hospital is like the manager of a small or medium sized enterprise. She is responsible for the patients, visitors, staff nurses, paramedics, consultants who visit the ward and for doctors. Nurses who study for an extra qualification get no recognition for it. The Minister and I who are former teachers know that if we were prepared, after we qualified, to go on for extra education it would be recognised. The pay and conditions of nurses should warrant a response from a Government which recognises the stressful work they do.