Why the Government cannot give in on the nurses’ strike

Latest public pay row is the most important battle of Paschal Donohoe’s ministerial career

Striking nurses and midwives on picket duty at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin describe the conditions that they work under and their concerns for the future of healthcare in this country. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The personal determination of nurses on the picket lines – out again today for the third time in 10 days – is the most noticeable feature of the dispute so far.

But the resolution of the Government, acutely aware that its fiscal credibility and political strategy for the next election are on the line, is equally evident.

These two forces are in fierce and bitter conflict – and it is likely to get fiercer and more bitter as the strike proceeds.

A three-day stoppage looms next week – an escalation that will bring much of the health service to the point of collapse. Psychiatric nurses say they will move from an overtime ban to an outright strike.

Perhaps the plainest message from the nurses, even allowing for the way the broadcast reporting amplifies these things, is that they are simply fed up – and they are convinced that a substantial pay increase is the way to improve their lot.

With average salaries for all levels, including allowances and premium payments, of €57,000 a year and starting salaries, again including the extras, of €37,000 (the numbers are from the Department of Public Expenditure, which pays the bills, and have been supplied to the Dáil) the nurses are clearly not paid a fortune by anyone’s standards.

Contestable proposition

But it is hard to argue that they are conspicuously badly paid by national or international standards. It is true that many young nurses go to Australia and beyond – but this is not a strange choice for people in their early 20s with highly portable qualifications. Whether increasing pay for all nurses at home would dim the attractions of Melbourne seems to me to be a contestable proposition at least.

But there is something else going on, I think, something deeper. At the heart of this dispute is the sense among nurses that they were mugged during the financial crash to pay for the sins of others. The banks broke the country and they ended up paying. Many saw their income slashed by a quarter; no wonder they want it back.

That this is only part of the truth does not diminish the fervour with which it is believed, not just by nurses but across the public sector at large.

The banks did bring the country down, of course, with ruinous consequences for everyone. But one of the reasons why the crash was so painful – individually and for the public finances – is that public servants had seen a decade of pay increases and rising numbers. Nurses’ pay was monstered in the years after 2008; but it had rocketed in the years before that.

Of course, private-sector pay had also risen sharply in the boom years. But 300,000 private-sector workers lost their jobs during the crash.

Numbers in the public sector, on the other hand, were reduced via retirements, making life more difficult certainly for those who remained.

In addition, the hit to public-sector workers’ pay comprised three elements: pay cuts, an increased pension contribution and tax increases.

Many nurses feel they have reached the end of the road; they have to get something

Many private-sector workers also saw pay cuts; all paid the extra taxes; and nurses would be wise not to draw attention to the disparity between public-sector and private-sector pension provision if they are looking for the support of their private-sector colleagues. The less the private sector knows about public-sector pensions the better for the public sector.

But none of this cuts any ice on the picket lines. And nor does it cut any ice with the hundreds of thousands of other public-sector workers who feel exactly the same.

Whatever you make of their case, it is deeply, passionately, viscerally held. Their attitude to the Government is: give me back the money you took. The teachers are following, watching closely. Defence Forces personnel are edging ahead of them in the queue. The GPs (not public servants but paid from the public purse) were outside Leinster House yesterday.

And the general public-service unions – who sold the existing pay deal to their memberships – have made it utterly clear to the Ministers concerned that if the Government gives in to the nurses, their members will follow suit with their own claims.

Public pay policy

So, from the Government’s perspective, this is about more than just the nurses; this is about its entire public pay policy. Giving up on that is the same as giving up on the budget, and a government that can’t budget can’t govern.

And it certainly can’t present itself as the guardian of fiscal prudence at the next election.

Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe speaks and writes eloquently and enthusiastically about defending the political centre. Fine words, to be sure, and words matter in politics. But deeds matter more.

Fiscal responsibility is the bedrock of the political centre and Donohoe is now – by his own definition – at the pointy end of defending the political centre. His claims to be the champion of good government will take a battering if he backs down now. This is the most important battle of his ministerial career.

Many nurses feel they have reached the end of the road; they have to get something. Yet the Government cannot give them what they want. As the strike really begins to bite, a resolution looks as far away as ever. Who will blink first?

Pat Leahy is Political Editor

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