Government committed ‘own goal’ on student nurses’ pay, Fine Gael meeting hears

TDs and Senators urged not to leak private party discussions to media

The Government committed an “own goal” on the issue of student nurses’ pay and was left “carrying the bucket”, the Fine Gael parliamentary party has heard.

Many Fine Gael TDs voiced concerns at the meeting on Wednesday night at how the issue has played out in recent days, and at the dominant role of Sinn Féin on social media.

The Government has been widely criticised for not providing student nurses with full pay for their work.

A review is underway of allowances for all student nurses, and for the payment of final year students, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in the Dáil on Tuesday he was certain the allowances would increase when the review is completed by the end of the year.

However, sources said that after the private Fine Gael meeting on Wednesday night Tánaiste Leo Varadkar appealed to party members not to leak the contents of their discussion to media, and noted that Sinn Féin members do not leak from their meetings.

It is understood that Mr Varadkar also questioned why Sinn Féin TDs do not leak, and remarked that maybe it was because they might get a “knock on the door”, referring to a recent incident with a former party member.

Christine O’Mahony, a member of UCD Ógra Sinn Féin, resigned from the party after a Sinn Féin member called to her house to demand she delete tweets that were critical of the party. Ms O’Mahony was also told not to discuss internal issues in public.

It is understood he said the way the issue of student nurses’ pay had been discussed publicly recently was pure party politics. The Government has rejected an Opposition motion to pay students nurses and midwives.

Mr Varadkar said the motion was a “cynical” exercise by the Opposition. The Tánaiste said his party needed to do better tactically and not walk into “traps”.

Sources said that former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan said the party needed to put the issue under a microscope, adding that the party had been “hammered” when “everyone ran for cover” and Fine Gael was left “carrying the bucket”.

He is understood to have told the meeting that the party should have been clearer that there is a review on the issue underway and that the situation was an “own goal”.

It is understood that Colm Brophy TD said that even “die-hard” Fine Gael members believed that what had been done was “nasty and mean.”

Dublin Mid-West TD Emer Higgins said the Opposition were picking emotive issues and making them political and it is understood she voiced concerns that some civil servants were making decisions on politically sensitive issues.

Cork North Central TD Colm Burke told the meeting that the party had attracted the brunt of the blame in comparison to Fianna Fáil and that it was often Fine Gael who must “carry the can”.

Sources said Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd asked that the party meet in the New Year to discuss political tactics.

The party heard calls from TDs to appoint a person who can see social media trends forming and warn the party about it. The next election would be won or lost online, the meeting was told.

Earlier, the Dáil heard the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is investigating claims that student nurses and midwives are being asked to work when they should not be, in cases that Mr Martin described as a “scandal”.

Mr Martin said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett and others should make formal complaints to the HSE about any such cases as they represent an "abuse" and "exploitation" of student nurses.

He also defended the restoration of pay and pension cuts to ministers and judges and former taoisigh and said the Government had delayed them for as long as legally possible.

Mr Martin rejected Ms McDonald’s claims that the Government was looking after the “great and the good” in the restoration announced on Tuesday of the final 2 per cent that was cut during the financial crisis.

She said these would benefit “already well paid Super Junior Ministers” judges and former taoisigh.

“There’s no complexity, no review on that front. It is always straightforward to cough up for those at the top,” she said, adding that the Government was refusing to pay student nurses.

However, Mr Martin said it suited Ms McDonald to “distort the truth” about the reversal of the cuts to pay and pensions during the recession. He said they could not discriminate between one group and another and she knew that.

“What you can do is delay as far as legally possible which is what the government has done.”

He said legislation was passed in 2017 to reverse the financial emergency cuts and this had to be done by the end of this year.

The row erupted in the Dáil in the ongoing controversy about pay for student nurses and midwives after TDs outlined testimonies of students working for no pay. The Government has rejected an Opposition motion to pay students nurses and midwives. Mr Martin said that first, second and third year students received an allowance while fourth years were paid for 36 weeks of their final year.

Menial tasks

Mr Martin said the whole idea of the introduction of the degree programme for nurses almost 20 years ago was to end the era of nurses doing “menial tasks” and to professionalise nursing.

He added that first and second year students were never meant to be working during six week clinical placements.

Mr Martin said Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was investigating this because nursing directors rejected claims that this was happening.

However, Mr Boyd Barrett highlighted the case of one first year student who said they were washing, feeding, lifting and dressing Covid-19 patients unsupervised. He said he had dozens of testimonies of students and he called on the Taoiseach to meet student nurses as he too hit out at the restoration of payments to Ministers, judges and former taoisigh. He also insisted that the Government should restore the health care assistant rate they gave to nursing students during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Martin said that first, second and third year students should not be doing the work Mr Boyd Barrett mentioned.

“They should be protected,” he said.

The Taoiseach said that the case of the first year student Mr Boyd Barrett mentioned was a “scandal”.

“That is wrong and that should be investigated,” he said. “I’m amazed that you think it’s okay, that they should be paid. My view is that they should never have been asked to do that in the first instance and I want that investigated. I want you to give me that case because we need to get to the bottom of that.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times

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