INMO branch chief says strike ‘shows things haven’t changed much’ since 1999 dispute, writes Tia Clarke.
"I can’t believe we’re out here picketing for the same reason 20 years later.”
Those were the words of a frustrated Colette Vize, nurse and chairperson of the Dundalk branch of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), as she walked the picket line outside Louth County Hospital last Wednesday morning along with 30 of her colleagues.
The Louth nurses were on a 24-hour work stoppage in solidarity with the 35,000 INMO nurses and midwives across the country involved in a dispute over pay and staff shortages which will see services grind to a halt again today.
Further strikes are also planned for Thursday and then February 12, 13, and 14. Over the weekend, they added February 19 and 21 to their schedule.
Ms Vize recalled: “I was out here on strike 20 years ago with my 11-month old son in my arms. There was a picture of me and Oisín in The Examiner. He’s a 21- year-old student in Dundalk IT now.
“We went on strike in 1999 over safe staffing levels. It just shows you, things haven’t changed that much.”
The clinical nurse manager at the stroke ward in the Louth County Hospital told how nurses didn’t ever think they’d have to fight the same battle two decades on.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be out on the picket line again,” said Ms Vize. “I can remember the nine days of no pay in ’99. A lot of nurses remember it.
"Back then, we said never again, and this just shows you how strongly we feel about this issue. We swore we wouldn’t do it again, but here we are.”
While she says nurses made a small leap of progress following their strikes in 1999, in terms of nursing being upgraded to a degree course, the fight still continues for the profession to achieve pay parity.
“We’re out here looking for the same things. We got the recognition we needed, but now we’re not on parity with other health care professionals,” she explained.
“Most Allied Health professionals work 35 hours per week and they’re there eight to five (8am-5pm). Nurses work 39 hours per week spread over a seven-day period, which can include nightshifts and other unsociable hours.”
Staff retention is another major issue, as other jurisdictions, such as Britain, Australia and Dubai, lure Irish nursing graduates with better pay and conditions.
“Nursing is a four-year degree course. The newly qualified nurses are getting €5,000 less than people qualifying as physiotherapists and in other healthcare professions,” said Ms Vize.
“So the young nurses are using the degree here and then leaving the country.
“The training they receive here is excellent, but they are having to emigrate to other countries where there are better wages and conditions (due to proper patient-to-staff ratios being implemented), which just can’t be matched here.”
If anything, the pressure has increased over the last two decades for nurses working on the frontline of Ireland’s health service.
“Nurses are under horrendous pressure,” said Ms Vize. “There are people going off duty crying.
We don’t have a safe patient-to-staff ratio in place, so we are overstretched, to say the least.”
The experienced nurse also cites a population increase and the fact that Irish people are living longer as factors in the crisis.
“The population in Ireland has increased greatly over the last few decades, so the demand for services is much higher,” she said.
“People are also living longer, which means more complex diagnostics and care is needed.
"We’re doing night shifts, holidays and weekends to claim the premium hours and earn more, because the wages are so bad.”
Despite the many grievances Irish nurses have, she said the professions’ duty of care to their patients is always at the forefront of their minds.
“If the strikes continue, waiting lists will go up again and we don’t want to see that,” said Ms Vize.
“The Government needs to act quickly and come to a resolution.”
In the meantime, the Louth nurse will have her family out supporting her at the picket line, whatever the weather.
Ms Vize carried her son on her hip back in 1999. Now, he towers over her at the picket line 20 years later.
“Obviously, my son Oisín doesn’t remember being out here the first time around; he was only a baby at the time. I was delighted he came down to the picket line today.
“He’s never seen his mam on strike before, he’s used to seeing me just head off to work, but he came down to show his support, as he knows his mother is grumpy, underpaid and overworked. Enough is enough.”