The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has announced 92% of members have voted to strike over concerns for patient safety and pay.
It is the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that its nurses have voted in favour of a walk out.
Publishing the results of the ballot, the RCN also revealed that 96% of members have voted in favour of industrial action.
It is a devastating blow for health officials – coming just days after an emergency care consultant spoke out about the horrendous conditions being endured by staff and patients at Antrim Area Hospital.
It also follows the publication of a Westminster report warning that the health service in Northern Ireland is on the brink of collapse.
At the same time, Unison and Nipsa are also balloting members over possible strike action as the row over pay and conditions threatens bring the health service to its knees.
The RCN UK Council will meet early next week to decide what form industrial action will take.
The director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, Pat Cullen, said: “Today, nurses in Northern Ireland have spoken clearly and collectively on behalf of patients and the people of Northern Ireland.
“Nurses are no longer willing to see patients being denied the health care services to which they are entitled.
“The 3,000 nursing vacancies that currently exist within the health service are having a detrimental impact upon patient care and adding enormous pressure to the existing nursing workforce, who are doing everything they can to care for patients.
“Nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen significantly behind the rest of the UK.
“Not only is this completely unfair but it sends a strong message to nurses that they are not valued or respected by decision-makers and employers.
“Equally importantly, it makes it difficult to recruit and retain the nurses that we desperately need to provide health care to the people of Northern Ireland.
“If we continue to treat nurses in this way, the health and social care system in Northern Ireland will move rapidly from crisis to collapse.”
RCN Chief Executive and General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said: “This is a day we had hoped not to reach, and the first time RCN members have ever voted to strike in our 103 year history.”
She said the decision to ballot members was not taken lightly but the results, which are overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, demonstrate the depth of feeling over patient safety as a result of staff shortages.
She continued: “In addition, the fact that the real value of nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen by around 15% in the last eight years is a fundamental unfairness that must be urgently addressed.
“Patients hugely value the care nurses provide, but it’s clear that health service leaders in Northern Ireland do not.
“This overwhelming result is a tribute to the hard work undertaken by RCN members and staff in Northern Ireland.
“Our governing Council will now meet to approve plans to take forward industrial action, including strike action, in Northern Ireland.”