Miriam Lord: Taoiseach nurses bafflement as pay rise for judges fuels row

Micheál Martin reaches for Fempi as Opposition denounces failure to pay student nurses

Taoiseach Micheál Martin  strongly resisted Opposition charges that his Government is wilfully refusing to pay these students for working during the Covid crisis. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Taoiseach Micheál Martin strongly resisted Opposition charges that his Government is wilfully refusing to pay these students for working during the Covid crisis. Photograph: Laura Hutton

 

In the clever corner, we have pay rises for public-service fat cats versus puppy dogs, baby seals and the student nurses.

And in the slow corner, we have a dull old piece of legislation and Micheál Martin.

You don’t have to be a political genius to work out which side is more likely to come out best in this Dáil bout.

Hit me now Micheál, with Florence Nightingale in me arms!

For nearly two weeks, the clever corner has pummelled his Government for turning a supposed blind eye to the cynical exploitation of our fledgling ministering angels as they toil without pay at the quarantined bedsides of dying patients in the teeth of a pandemic.

The evidence from the students certainly seems to bear this out.

But Taoiseach Micheál Martin is finding it very hard to believe. It seems nobody in the Health Service Executives knows anything about it, the top brass unsurprisingly deaf thus far to the ongoing student protests. Nursing managers in the hospitals are telling Micheál it isn’t happening. So could it be true?

If students are being used by hospitals for unpaid labour mislabelled as education, it is a disgrace and an “abuse” and any such cases must be reported to the HSE, has been the Taoiseach’s unswerving view during Leaders’ Questions.

“So they can be victimised?” harrumphed Richard Boyd Barrett on Wednesday.

“We will protect the student nurses concerned,” assured Micheál, conjuring up visions of them forced to change their identities, go teetotal and give up wearing county jerseys in Copper Face Jack’s until the rogue nursing managers are taken off the streets.

Oh, and the Minister for Health is also carrying out an investigation into this situation which nobody ever suspected might be going on in a health service suffering serious staff shortages in the middle of a pandemic while students nurses are out on the streets protesting about it.

In the Dáil, the Taoiseach strongly resisted Opposition charges that his Government is wilfully refusing to pay these students for working during the Covid crisis. He says students are in hospitals to do clinical placements as part of their university degree courses. They are there to learn and should not have to carry out duties beyond their course requirements.

To which the protesting students might say: You say education: we say exploitation! If they don’t, Paul Murphy has a megaphone in the boot of his car and he certainly will.

Backbenchers unhappy

Government backbenchers are unhappy over the sluggish way the controversy has been handled. The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parliamentary party meetings saw TDs deeply annoyed over how the student nurses have been used with great effect against the Government.

They say the controversy should have been nipped in the bud with a clear message on the concrete steps taken to ensure that student nurses who have given so much during the pandemic (to the great appreciation of the TDs’ appalled constituents) are treated fairly.

And then, in the middle of this row over the State trying to take advantage of impecunious care-giving students, the Government announces a tasty little pay rise for a gilded group of senior public servants including judges, TDs with Dáil committee nixers, handsomely-pensioned former mandarins ansd retired taoisigh.

You have to wonder if it was atrociously bad timing, ferociously bad luck or just total cluelessness which made them do this.

And when Michael McGrath, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, told the Cabinet the money had to be paid by year’s end under binding legislation, did an anguished groan of “Aaah, for Jaaaaysis sake” rise up from all the Ministers around the table?

And did anyone ask if there was a chance of keeping this information quiet for at least another week until after noisy Mary Lou McDonald and the Dáil rise, and then letting it trickle out when people are busy getting ready for Christmas?

Maybe they just bumbled along in a “be grand” sort of way.

In the Dáil, Micheál Martin is exhausted trying to explain that the student labour issue is a complicated one and cannot be reduced to populist soundbites by Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit TDs for easy political gain. Yet that’s exactly what is happening.

On Tuesday, he told Paul Murphy “public policy never gets developed on a hashtag [#paythenurses] and it’s time people realise this”. On Wednesday, he told Murphy’s socialist colleague Mick Barry: “I’m of the view that your party are opportunistic propagandists.”

It didn’t matter that he had a response for most of the accusations about his Government’s treatment of the students. Their pay was not suddenly cut off for no reason – they got paid during the first wave of the pandemic because they were formally rostered for work in hospitals. This is not the case now. Student nurses and midwives who can’t do their part-time jobs because of the risk of Covid cross-contamination can avail of the PUP payment.

He said repeatedly that rates for fourth years are in line for “an upwards increase” shortly, while bursaries and allowances are also under fresh consideration.

But Micheál’s assertion that neither the Government nor the HSE are aware of incidences of students working long hours and performing duties way above what their studies demand and training permits sounded hollow in the face of the personal testimonies quoted at him in the Dáil.

His insistence that the students report these cases to the HSE seemed uncaring and detached.

On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, the final step in a legal process to restore public pay levels to well-off public servants is gleefully conflated by the Opposition with the entirely separate issue of the student nurses and midwives. Who would begrudge them the extra few bob for all their work?

“Real work, hard work, heroic work,” as the Sinn Féin leader described it before witheringly noting how it always seems very straightforward “when it comes to coughing up for those at the top”, shelling out “big money for Ministers, for judges . . . but nothing for the student nurses and midwives who have given their blood, sweat and tears for the health and safety of our people.”

It showed what side Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are one, she thundered.

Fempi

The Taoiseach played his ace card.

Fempi.

Something called Fempi – financial emergency measures in the public interest. Passed in 2008 to trim the public-sector wage bill when the recession hit.

“We need the truth here,” he began, promisingly, before losing his audience. “You campaigned for the reversal of Fempi for years . . . as far back as 2013 onwards, which involves the payments to the people you just outlined. You know all that, of course, but it suits you to twist it and to distort the truth in terms of reversal of the Fempi cuts, because legally in terms of the reversal of the Fempi cuts you cannot distinguish between one group and another. What you can do is delay.”

And on he went, through all the emotional, passionate, angry contributions from McDonald, RBB, Murphy, Mick Barry and Brid Smith. Talking about the unwinding of bloody Fempi.

He was right, the Government has no choice under the law but to implement the final stage of pay restoration to the highest-paid group and that time came this week, after holding it back for four years. But who was listening?

No fair pay for the lowly nurses but a big payday for the big noises. And an easy bullseye for the Opposition.

His Government is not protecting the “high rollers” he angrily explained to Boyd Barrett. The law forced its hand “And you damn well know it!”

But, but, but Fempi. . .

It’ll take more than banging on about the reversal of Fempi to reverse this setback.

A serious issue, but they’re still cock-a-hoop in the clever corner.

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