Socialist Worker

Nurses strike blow at Ireland's elite

by HAZEL CROFT reports from Dublin
Issue No. 1670

'WE'RE NO longer Florence Nightingales. We're fighting back.' Those were the words of Susanne Kennedy, one of 10,000 striking Irish nurses who brought the centre of Dublin to a standstill on Thursday of last week.

Over 27,000 nurses in Ireland have been on indefinite nation-wide strike. It is the biggest strike since the Irish Republic was founded in the 1920s. The nurses have had enough of working backbreaking long hours in a run down public health service for little reward.

A massive 96 percent of nurses voted in favour of the national strike, with emergency cover, which began on Tuesday of last week. Nurses set up picket lines outside over 1,000 hospitals around Ireland. Staff nurse Niamh O'Kelly summed up how nurses feel: 'We're tired slaving morning, noon and night for little pay, doing 12 hour shifts.'

The nurses demanded better pay for long serving staff nurses and proper rewards for their skills. But their fight has come to be about much more. The nurses have become a symbol for workers who have been denied the benefits of Ireland's booming economy.

Media commentators and politicians alike have hailed Ireland as the 'Celtic Tiger' - named after the Asian 'Tiger' economies. Many Scottish and Welsh nationalist politicians say Ireland is the model for their countries to follow. But the nurses' fight smashes the myths about the Celtic Tiger. 'Celtic Miser' is how one placard on the nurses' mass demonstration summed it up.

The Irish government is a right wing coalition government headed by the Fianna Fail party. The government has been exposed in a series of corruption scandals involving former Irish leader Charles Haughey and his friends in the present government, including current Irish leader Bertie Ahern. The government has a 'surplus' of £6 billion in its budget - but it refuses to pay the nurses or invest in healthcare. It is terrified that if the nurses win then other groups of workers like teachers and bus workers will also demand their share.

There was a carnival like atmosphere on Thursday's demonstration but every nurse Socialist Worker spoke to was furious at the government. One nurse carried a banner saying, 'The Tiger's health is not the nurses' wealth.' 'The banner says it all,' she told Socialist Worker. 'We've lost out, while the golden circle of the government and the bosses have evaded tax.'

Other banners attacked government health minister Brian Cowen. One of the most popular slogans of the day was 'Stop Mad Cowen Disease'. Hundreds of shoppers and passers-by cheered and clapped the striking nurses. Nearly everyone around the city that day was proudly sporting a yellow sticker saying, 'I support the nurses.' Building workers stopped work to cheer the marchers on. Office workers raised clenched fists and shouted their support.

Susanne Kennedy from County Donegal said, 'It's grand to see other workers supporting us. We've had nothing but cheers and shouts of support today. The atmosphere is fantastic. This is the first demonstration I've been on and it's exhilarating. I never saw myself as political before but we have to take this fight to the government.'

Her sentiments were echoed along the march - on delegations from Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Skibereen, Roscommon, Sligo and Limerick. Nurse Catherine McGrory explained, 'The government have only got themselves to blame for turning nurses into raving militants. I never thought that I would go on strike. But now we are out we need to keep on fighting. The strike is about what the priorities are in this country. Is it looking after the sick or is it looking after the politicians with their plush cars and handouts from business?'

Huge support for fightback

A POLL in one Irish newspaper last weekend found that 70 percent of people blamed the government for creating a crisis in the hospitals and 66 percent backed the nurses' strike. That support has been shown on the nurses' picket lines in the displays of solidarity from members of the public and from patients.

One nurse at the Mater Hospital in Dublin said, 'We have been inundated with messages of support. People have brought us everything from cups of coffee to lotto tickets to presents.' On most bus routes in Dublin, drivers proudly displayed stickers supporting the nurses.

But unfortunately the nurses' own trade union leaders have failed to build on this feeling of solidarity and spread the action. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (like the TUC in Britain) has been reported as trying to persuade nurses' leaders to 'water down' the demands of the strike. Trade union leaders in Ireland are all signed up to a 'partnership' agreement with the government and bosses.

But partnership has been one sided. It has only served to make the rich richer at the expense of workers. The nurses' strike has shown an alternative to the partnership so loved by bosses and union leaders in both Ireland and Britain.

Why we've got off our knees

'THE STRIKE is a product of years of frustration, stress and overwork. We faced a series of health cuts in the 1980s. There were ward closures, a pay freeze, major redundancies, and wards and even whole hospitals were shut down. Many nurses were forced to work on temporary contracts, often on a week by week basis. They had no pension rights and no job security. Conditions in the hospitals deteriorated. Between 1985 and 1988 20 percent of hospital beds were cut.

'If you walk into any accident and emergency department in any part of Ireland you'll find patients on trolleys and even lying on mattresses on the floor. Conditions are more akin to the Third World than a booming economy which is supposed to be the envy of the world. Now there is a huge nursing shortage. Nurses have just left because they won't put up with these conditions. But now we have gotten off our knees.'
JO TULLY, a nurse at St James's Hospital in Dublin

Northern march unites

THE MOOD to fight in the North of Ireland as well as the South was shown last Saturday when over 400 people marched in Belfast. The 'Time to Fight Poverty, Time for Workers' Rights' demonstration received a warm response, with people joining in as it made its way down Royal Avenue, the main shopping street.

The march was demanding a £5 an hour minimum wage; an end to hospital closures, privatisation and student fees; and repeal of the anti-union laws. The march was led by over 150 firefighters in uniform and included banners from the FBU, ATGWU, CWU, Derry Trades Council and student unions. There were delegations from Portadown, Derry and Coleraine, and shop stewards from the H&W shipyards, railways and Belfast City Council along with community workers from the Shankill Road and Ardoyne.

Mary Smith, a nurse from Dublin, told the rally, 'We are always told that we're different if we're from the North or the South. But we all share the same problems of low pay, long hours, insecurity, and we all face the same sorts of bosses and rotten politicians.'

Collect, Petition

THE VAST majority of nurses on strike in Ireland have not been getting any strike pay. Yet they are providing emergency cover, which means they are working for free. The nurses' leaders have been negotiating with the government. We did not know the outcome as Socialist Worker went to press. If the strike is still on, take a petition and do a collection for the nurses around your workplace.

Messages of support: c/o Rank and File Solidarity Network, 10 O'Hogan Road, Ballyfermot, Dublin 10. Cheques payable to Irish Nurses Organisation.

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Article information

Sat 30 Oct 1999, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1670
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