Turning the ongoing nurses dispute into an election issue will not find a solution, Minister for Health Mary Harney warned today.
Up to 400 Irish Nursing Organisation (INO) members refused to applaud before or after the minister's 12-minute address to their special delegate conference in Dublin.
Ms Harney was also heckled when she remarked in her speech that "patients were losing out", but the interruption was quickly quelled by union officials.
INO president Madeline Spiers reminded the Progressive Democrat TD of the electoral clout of 40,000 striking nurses and their families.
"Our votes are up for sale. Make no bones about that," she said to applause.
But Ms Harney told delegates that any responsible Government would try to protect social partnership in the face of unrealistic pay claims.
"There are over three million voters and nearly 1.4 million income tax payers. There are many issues before the electorate and many demands on public resources," she said.
"For my part, I will not take any position, or react to any proposal in this dispute solely on account of the election.
"I am interested in solutions and talks and in maintaining order in public sector pay and costs - but not because of the election.
"The election will come and go. The issues will remain. No responsible Government would deal with them in any other way."
The unions have until 5.30pm today to call off their work-to-rule or face a 13% pay-cut enforced by the Health Service Executive.
More health facilities are to be targeted tomorrow.
In a rousing speech, Ms Spiers told delegates: "My salary is €44,000 a year and I have to budget very hard, like all of you - your mortgage, your children going to college, you want to change your car. My new car is four years old, much like the rest of you.
"I like my job. I feel that I give to my community. I like looking after people. This is the essence of what nursing and midwifery is all about. You never need rich nurses."
Then she added to applause from the floor: "I don't earn like the minister does - €220,000 a year."
She told delegates: "What is on the line here is our profession.
"We are not a lesser profession than anybody else out there, and we will be valued as a profession."
She quoted Animal Farm: "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others."
However Ms Harney said that nobody wins in industrial disputes.
"Patients are not winning, and will not be the winners. So far, in fact they are the ones losing, and the only ones losing."
She added: "The Government and I have no interest in a victory. We want a solution. We want agreement. We want a way forward. And we will work towards it again."
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who has called for leadership and imaginative solutions from the Government parties on the issue, will address the conference this afternoon.