Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said were the Government to accede to nurses' pay demands, it would not be fair to patients or other health workers.
Speaking during Leaders' Questions, Mr Varadkar came under sustained fire from Opposition leaders about today's strike by 35,000 nurses but insisted there would be no last-minute intervention from him or the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.
“It would not be fair to taxpayers to borrow money to fund pay increases. There are good reasons why a country might borrow money, but borrowing money to fund pay increases is not good policy and only leads to pay cuts down the line. I do not want to subject anyone to that ever again,” he said.
Pointing to the current public sector pay deal which runs to 2020 and includes nurses, he said: “It needs to be fair to all public servants, other people working in the health service and other people working in other parts of the public service. If we do a special deal for one group it will not be possible to do the same deal for everyone. That just would not be affordable.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin asked why the Government has not engaged with the Labour Court in order to resolve the issue, citing the previous deal involving the Gardai which, he said, needed the nod from “on high” to get over the line. In response, Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin was wrong to say such a break from the national pay deal was consequence free.
“The Deputy is incorrect to say that the resolution of the Garda dispute did not have a consequence for public sector pay. It did. It required a renegotiation of the existing Lansdowne Road agreement and had a knock-on effect across the public service, which resulted in additional costs for taxpayers of approximately €150 million that year,” he said.
Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said she was struck by the very laissez-faire approach the Taoiseach was taking less than 24 hours before the strike action was due to commence.
He, in response, said the country will not know where it will be in 12-weeks' time. “In ten or 12 weeks time we could find ourselves needing to find a lot of money to save people's jobs because there are people working in the food industry, in agriculture, small medium enterprises, SMEs, and in small exporters whose jobs may be under threat in a few weeks' time,” he said.
On intervention and engagement, the Taoiseach said: “We have a mechanism by which we resolve disputes such as this and we have State bodies that engage in dispute resolution. They are the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court and the Government is part of those conversations. Disputes are always resolved in the end and this dispute will be resolved in the end but there are parameters under which it can be resolved.”