By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – Health services were thrown into chaos this week when 27,500 nurses started their first ever strike for more pay and mounted pickets on hospitals in Ireland’s largest ever industrial dispute.
The strike threatened crisis in the already rundown health services with thousands of patients sent home as wards were cleared.
About 7,000 hospital admissions a week are being canceled and out-patient clinics with 38,000 appointments a week will also grind to a halt.
"It is a very black day for the country. It will go down as Black Tuesday," said Irish Nurses’ Organization deputy general secretary Lenore Mrkwicka.
"The nurses are determined to stay out for as long as it takes until this is resolved. I would hope by continued determination and continued negotiations that it would be possible to wrap it up within a week.
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"The determination and resolve of our members is evidenced by the fact that we don’t have a strike fund and yet they are willing to stay out there until this is brought to a satisfactory conclusion — at the same time providing free emergency cover to ensure patient care is central," Mrkwicka said.
The nurses, who are represented by an alliance of four unions, overwhelmingly rejected a £60 million package and voted by 96 percent to strike for better terms.
Last minute talks on Monday with Health Minister Brian Cowen failed to find a formula for new negotiations.
Cowen described the meeting as "workmanlike" and "productive" but nursing alliance leaders said they failed to even reach agreement on procedures about new talks.
There is widespread public sympathy for the nurses but there is also mounting anxiety about emergency patients such as cardiac and cancer sufferers, mothers giving birth and elderly people cared for at home by community-based services.
Ireland’s leading cardiac surgeon, Maurice Nelligan expressed concern about the dispute and said a lack of nurses in the last two years had led to a 25 percent cutback in heart surgery.
"I don’t think anybody could put their hand on the heart and say that lives could not be lost as a result of major industrial action of this kind in such a sensitive area."
The government has refused to make further concessions to the nurses fearing it will lead to knock-on effect with similar claims from medical staff, teachers, police, soldiers and other public servants.
The strike also threatens to derail a 12-year policy of wage restraint and "social partnership" that has made a major contribution to the Celtic Tiger economy.