Northern Ireland nurses set to vote on strike action over pay and conditions
Northern Ireland's health service is facing a fresh crisis as a major nursing union is to ballot members over industrial action.
Nurses who work in emergency departments, operating theatres, hospital wards, care homes and those who care for terminally ill patients in their homes are among those who will be asked whether they want to strike as the row with health officials over pay and conditions reaches a new low.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland is taking the unprecedented action following on from a series of public meetings that heard claims that patients' lives are being put at risk and some nurses are being pushed to the brink of suicide by their jobs.
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said: "No nurse in Northern Ireland wishes to take any form of industrial action.
"However, as a profession, we are no longer prepared to tolerate the risk to patients, nurses and the people of Northern Ireland.
"The RCN is putting immediate measures in place to make preparations to ballot members in the coming weeks."
Speaking at one of the public meetings in May, Ms Cullen warned the nursing profession was in crisis after successive health ministers and civil servants ignored the college's warnings of a "perfect storm".
Ms Cullen said staffing issues were being exacerbated by the disparity in pay between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland, meaning nurses are choosing to work in countries where they can earn more. The salary for newly qualified nurses in Northern Ireland stands at £22,795, while their counterparts in England and Wales earn £24,214 and this rises to £24,670 in Scotland.
Meanwhile, nurses in the Republic of Ireland have recently negotiated a new pay deal meaning their starting salary is €29,000, rising to €42,000.
The maximum a band five nurse in Northern Ireland can earn is £29,300, regardless of how long they have been working.
Speaking at the same event, nurses described horrific conditions on hospital wards, with one nurse even claiming she has sleepless nights worrying that her patients would die while waiting for a bed.
Negotiations have been ongoing between unions and the Department of Health, but yesterday the RCN announced its intention to ballot members over the current situation.
The union said the health and well-being of members are being adversely impacted by the pressures facing nurses.
It also said there is a link between recruitment and retention of nursing staff, cost-saving measures and low pay.
Fiona Devlin, RCN (NI) Board chair, said: "The decision taken today is unprecedented in the history of the RCN.
"Members of the RCN (NI) Board have been left with no option but to ballot RCN members in Northern Ireland as a result of the total inaction to address the staffing crisis facing health care in Northern Ireland.
"This situation is compounded by nurses in Northern Ireland being the lowest paid across the UK."