Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been accused of disrespecting nurses and patients by issuing “cynical” press releases instead of directly engaging with unions.
As nurses yesterday took part in a second 24-hour strike, Mr Varadkar told the Dáil there is “no guarantee” that a pay rise would actually solve the recruitment and retention problem in our health sector but insisted the dispute can be resolved.
Calling on Mr Varadkar to replace spin with substance, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin slammed the “pathetic” approach taken and absence of “substantive and meaningful engagement” on the Government side.
He pointed to a press release jointly issued by Health Minister Simon Harris and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe on Monday night which said the Government would be willing to engage in talks on conditions but failed to mention pay increases.
“You cannot resolve industrial disputes by such cynical PR manoeuvres. That kind of ‘optics are more important that substance’ approach won’t cut it when it comes to an industrial dispute of this gravity and scale,” said Mr Martin, adding that the statement “only served to compound the problem and make it worse”.
Mr Varadkar said the statement is a “sincere offer”. He said: “I appreciate that the nurses’ union felt that the offer to engage in further talks at the [Workplace Relations Commission] was discourteous as they heard it through a press release and not a letter or direct contact and we will make sure that that does not recur.”
However, he added: “We shouldn’t forget that tens of thousands of people found out through the media that their respite was being cancelled this week too and that their daycare was being cancelled.”
Mr Martin dubbed the Taoiseach’s explanation pathetic. “Have you reprimanded your ministers? What were they at last night?” he said.
“It’s appalling that a Taoiseach would come in here today and say that we engaged in optics last night essentially, we didn’t make any direct contact in terms of the offer that was announced. It’s a pathetic way to approach such a grave, grave dispute.”
Sinn Féin president Mary-Lou McDonald said: “Your approach thus far has utterly failed. An approach of open, respectful dialogue, led by you, with no preconditions, is the best prospect of success.”
Mr Varadkar hit back by claiming that Ms McDonald and her party “hold the world record for failing to come to an agreement and form a coalition in Northern Ireland”.
“There is no advice that she can give us on negotiations, conciliation, or reconciliation,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said the dispute will have to be resolved “under certain parameters”. He said any deal will have to be affordable to the taxpayer and fair to all other public servants.
Ministers discussed the nurses dispute at Cabinet yesterday with both Mr Harris and Mr O’Donohoe updating their colleagues.
It is understood that Independent Alliance Minister Finian McGrath made a number of suggestions in a bid to find a solution to the pay demands, however, Cabinet remained of the belief that the Government must stick to the public sector pay agreement signed last year.