In effect, both sides in this dispute are holding the sick to ransom. Liam Doran, general secretary of the INO, has accused Health Minister Mary Harney and the Health Service Executive (HSE) of using scare tactics but this is merely a case of the pot and the kettle calling each other names.
The INO’s case was not helped in recent weeks by its demands in relation to the opening of the Maternity Hospital in Cork.
The Labour Court ruled against any financial demands, but the INO persisted in seeking €1,000 for each nurse moving, while it maintained that the dispute was not about money.
This latest dispute is clearly about money. Brendan Mulligan of the Health Service Employers’ Agency contends the dispute is unnecessary because the unions’ claims were subject to an in-depth examination by the Labour Court, which recommended that the pay claims “should be processed through the Public Service Benchmarking Body.” The nurses tried that once and have refused go through the process this time.
Nurses are essentially coming from a somewhat privileged position in that they are a highly respected professional class of people, enjoying a wealth of public goodwill. However, this dispute could turn into a public relations disaster for them if there are more stories like the plight of baby John Joe Bourke. And there will inevitably be such stories if the dispute escalates.
Social Partnership has made a magnificent contribution to industrial peace in this country and this in turn has nurtured the Celtic Tiger economy. But it seems that the nurses are effectively insisting that they are a special case, and they are not prepared to work within the benchmarking system.
If a special exception is made for the nurses, who will be next — gardaí, teachers, civil servants, train divers, or some other segment of society? The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern generated a political reputation for himself as a conciliator, but, in the run up to a general election, he has taken an unusually strong stand in refusing to make an exceptional deal with the nurses.
“We’re in a national agreement with everybody and we just can’t give that,” he insisted.
The amount of money involved may ultimately be small in comparison with the money the HSE has squandered on itself and its administrative inefficiencies. In a sense it has little to lose, as its reputation is already in tatters.
The nurses probably have a strong case, because they are in the frontline, and they have traditionally been overworked and underpaid. But the unions are now going about their claims in a way which could prove disastrous for both the sick and the nurses.