Sligo nurses’ strike: ‘The system is a disgrace. And it’s the patients who are suffering’

Nurses at Sligo University Hospital say staff shortages adding to increased pressure

 Mayor of Sligo Rosaleen O’Grady (C) a former nurse with nurses Elaine Coleman (left) and Yvonne Cunningham (right) at Sligo University Hospital. Photograph: Marese McDonagh

Mayor of Sligo Rosaleen O’Grady (C) a former nurse with nurses Elaine Coleman (left) and Yvonne Cunningham (right) at Sligo University Hospital. Photograph: Marese McDonagh


Elaine Coleman finished her night shift at 9am on Wednesday and headed straight to the picket line outside Sligo University Hospital. “I am wrecked but you have to stand up for what you believe in. That is why I am here,” said the 27 year old who qualified as a nurse in 2014. Three months ago she returned from a two year nursing stint in Australia and she has already applied for a nursing post in Saudi Arabia.

“I actually applied two weeks after I got home,” said the Ballina native. “And if I don’t get Saudi Arabia, I’ll probably go to New Zealand”. The agency nurse said that she would not take a full-time job in Ireland because of the staffing levels and pressure on nurses.

“The system is a disgrace. And it’s the patients who are suffering,” she said. The agency nurse worked in a private hospital in Ireland for three months. “That was the worst I have ever seen. It was like a business. It was unbelievably stressful. You were fighting for your patients, all the time, arguing that they were not ready for discharge. And then you were told ‘you’re only a nurse’”.

Having worked in Australia and England she says the career progression and educational opportunities there are far removed from the Irish health system. “Apart from the career opportunities you felt people there had your back, respected what you do,” said the nurse. “Even today is just so demoralising. Everyone passing is waving to us which is lovely but we are supposed to be a first world country and we have patients looking out the window at us standing here. It is just so sad. Pay is definitely a factor but it is about morale too”.

Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) are staging the first in a series of six 24-hour work stoppages on Wednesday as part of a campaign to secure pay parity with other graduate-entry healthcare professional staff such as physiotherapists. The nurses maintain that such increases are needed to tackle recruitment and retention problems in the health service.

Nurses not replaced

Also on the picket line in Sligo was Yvonne Cunningham a staff nurse in the Emergency Department in SUH for 10 years. She says that seeing patients suffer because of the lack of facilities has hardened her resolve. “Last Saturday night for example there was a storm and a big wind and there were elderly patients on trolleys on the corridor and every time the automatic doors swung open we had to move them further and further down the corridor as they were freezing. “We have no facilities for them. They have to use the public toilets in the waiting area. In 10 years things have not improved and we have to be a voice for these patients . We don’t want them suffering on trolleys. That is not what our training was about. But we don’t have the resources to properly care for them. And then we get verbally abused by relatives who are understandably angry. I don’t blame them”.

The Monaghan native said that pay was not the main issue. “It is the people. This is our way of voicing what we see happening to patients every day. Since December our department alone has lost four nurses. And none of them have been replaced. So that means more pressure. And this is life saving work. These people need us just as we need the public’s support today”.

‘Taken for granted’

The mayor of Sligo Rosaleen O’Grady was one of a number of local politicians on the picket line and the Fianna Fáil councillor, a former nurse and said she was there to support her colleagues. “Their good will and the nurse-can-do attitude and the nurse-will-do attitude has been taken for granted for too long. I think it is long past time that the Government and the Minister engage with the INMO”. She said the public had heard a lot from the Minister for Health Simon Harris about all the surgery and the appointments which had been cancelled due to the strike. “But he has not told us about all the appointments cancelled over many years. In fact in January this year surgery was down by 50 per cent nationally and that had nothing to do with the strike.”

Throughout the day passing cars honked their horns to indicate support for the nurses who also seemed to enjoy the good will of patients, many of whom spent the morning looking out the windows waving at those joining the picket line. One patient Marian Cahill from near Bundoran in Co Donegal, who was being discharged after a five day stay in Sligo hospital was furious with the Government . “I have been here for five days and I can tell you I feel a lot better leaving than I did coming in, thanks to the nurses,” she said.

“The TDS can give themselves a €5000 rise at the stroke of a pen and they have nurses standing here up to their ankles in snow fighting for what they deserve. . . I support them 100 per cent. I don’t believe this is about pay. It’s about them being under-staffed and struggling to provide a service.”

Another man waiting to pick up his wife who had been an in-patient said he “absolutely” supported the nurses. “You have TDs getting tens of thousands in unvouched expenses and they won’t give the nurses what they deserve. In my view they are angels. My wife has ben here for a week and I have seen what they do. They are absolutely brilliant.”

Noel Treanor industrial relations officer with the INMO said the picket had not started until 9am in Sligo because of the treacherous road conditions, although members had turned up at the allotted times.

“The mood is determined among the nurses. They are buoyant enough but the mood music from the Government suggests we will be out again next Tuesday and quite possibly Thursday,” he said.