This is a year of centenaries. Many will come with huge fanfare, others with more sombre moments of reflection and commemoration and some will slip by largely unnoticed.
Take, for example, the meeting of a small group of nurses and midwives in Dublin in 1919. That group would form the nucleus of what we know today as the INMO – Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
What a year to come into existence. The then Irish Nurses Union went from strength to strength, fighting for nurses’ rights, pay and conditions through a hundred year period that saw multiple wars, depressions, disasters and political and economic collapses.
And yet in all that time, throughout all that history, they were only ever compelled to go on a national strike once.
This group, that came into existence the year the War of Independence started, has weathered countless periods of social, political and economic turmoil, bombs and busts and yet they were brought to breaking point in less than three years by a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition.
That’s not to let previous governments off the hook. What we are seeing now is the outcome of decades of neglect by various Fine Gael or Fianna Fail governments and whatever political mudflap propped them up at the time, but it was only when these two behemoths of self interest got together, claiming to be both Government and opposition, that the nurses cracked.
Nurses. The people with patience (not to mention patients) that would shame a saint. The people who go to work every day (and yes Leo, they get up early) to help the helpless. Who find themselves abused by drunks they’re trying to help or screamed at by frantic, panicked relatives. Who work a 12 hour shift that turns into 14 hours and then 16 hours. Who on any given day can find themselves covered in blood, spit, piss or shit. Who work on the front line of pain and tragedy and death every day and somehow shake it off and find the strength to wake up the next day and do it all again.
These people, were pushed to far by this government.
Who knows what the breaking point was. Certainly the dreadful conditions, the lack of support and the pay freezes and cuts were the real bones of contention but I have a sneaking suspicion that for many of those who ticked the ballot for strike action the straw that broke the camel’s back was An Taoiseach’s snide remarks.
A little bit of gratitude goes a long, long way and I imagine many of them were outraged if not deeply hurt when they saw the head of their Government try to shift the blame for the health crisis they were bearing the brunt of onto them and their “extended Christmas holidays.”
Leo, by the way, is paid as much as six nurses and enjoys a nice long Christmas break himself.
Then again Leo has a long history of Foot in Mouth Disease. Who could forget his campaign to catch “welfare cheats” who were “taking money out of your pocket” while he conspired to help multinationals steal €13billion in unpaid tax.
Or his bafflement at the backlash when he claimed new builds starting at €350,000 were “affordable housing” and that if people didn’t have that on them they could get a loan from mummy and daddy.
Should we be surprised that his aloof disconnect from the rest of society has lead to strike after strike by over worked, under appreciated people at breaking point?
And then, of course, there was the black propaganda campaign against the nurses. “Our nurses are among the highest paid in the world” well placed newspaper headlines declared, quietly covering up the fact that the convoluted system the Government used to get to this figure didn’t actually account for hours worked or the length of time it took to qualify for various pay grades.
If this government had put the same amount of time and energy into the Brexit negotiations that it has into crushing ordinary working people we wouldn’t be worried about a backstop, we’d likely have gotten the six counties back and half of Wales as well.
The very fact this strike happened at all, with more planned in the coming weeks, should be enough to tell you that nurses cannot take any more.
They didn’t want to strike. Down through the years when strikes were threatened nurses always stopped short because even then their number one priority was for their patients.
Can you imagine how heartbreaking it must have been for them to have to vote to strike. The moral and ethical turmoil they went through. But vote they did. And this was no close call either. 95% of them opted for strike action.
And if you want to know why, don’t look at the stats and the headlines and the demands (modest though they are.)
If you really want to know why this happened I’d encourage you to look up a Facebook group set up by Irish nurses where they can anonymously post their experiences about working in our health service.
It’s harrowing reading.
“I managed to stuff a few crackers (they’re all I can ever afford) in my mouth between phone calls which consisted mainly of trying to support people who wanted to self-harm”
“I am currently sitting barely able to breathe through the sobs after the shift I have just had.”
“I just finished 4 years of gruelling college work, costing both myself and my parents a fortune and still paying off the debt. I worked as an intern midwife for a year on €6.49 an hour, all for what? To walk away just a year after qualifying? It’s utterly soul-destroying.”
“My mother working part time in retail is on the same annual wage as me. On top of that I must work an extra 13-hour shifts every month for free. I just can’t take it anymore, I’m at the end of my tether. “
“We went 13.5 hrs without going for a pee. Then again we didn’t get time to have a drink. I did steal an apple from the kitchen and ate it on my way home. That was all I ate yesterday. “
The government’s complete disinterest in the working conditions of our nurses and midwives is not only morally and ethically repulsive, it is putting lives at risk. These are people who are mentally and physically worn out.
And yet there they were yesterday. In the snow and wind. Demanding their rights. Demanding their patients’ rights. These are among the most resilient people in the country and if this Government thinks it can break them during this dispute it’s got another thing coming.
Stand with our nurses and midwives! Victory to the strikers!