Northern Ireland nurses to ballot on all-out strike over pay
Thousands of healthcare workers in Northern Ireland are to be balloted on possible strike action over a failure by health bosses to award a pay rise this year.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland has revealed it is taking the unprecedented step of asking members if they want to be balloted on industrial action over the continuing absence of any pay award for 2018/19.
The indicative ballot will be launched next Monday.
Unison - which represents a third of the 65,000 NHS staff in Northern Ireland - has said it will hold a similar ballot if it does not receive a satisfactory offer from the Department of Health in coming weeks.
Other unions such as Unite and Nipsa are also planning to hold indicative ballots if no agreement can be reached, meaning tens of thousands of NHS workers - including physiotherapists, domestics, nursing assistants, social workers and occupational therapists - will be asked whether they want a further vote on industrial action.
Fiona Devlin, RCN (NI) Board Chair, said: "This is a decision that we have taken reluctantly. Our colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales have already received their pay awards for the current year, backdated to April.
"Yet in Northern Ireland, once again, nurses have been left behind and taken for granted by the Department of Health. Enough is enough."
A source from the Department of Health has said they are optimistic a deal can be reached to head off any potential walk-outs.
The source said: "This is complicated without ministers in place and with funding pressures across government.
"We are hopefully getting there. Hopes are definitely rising of a deal.
"The Department of Health has bid for the extra money still needed to fully fund a pay increase similar to England this year. Securing that funding would be a major step towards securing a deal."
Health unions have been in talks with the department for a number of months regarding this year's pay award.
It has been claimed that the department initially said it was unable to discuss pay awards due to an absence of ministers.
However, union officials said negotiations followed a move by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley to give civil servants greater powers amid the political vacuum at Stormont.
RCN (NI) said a requested 3pc pay rise for staff on Agenda for Change contracts - the national pay system for almost all NHS staff - was turned down.
It is understood departmental officials cannot make a pay award until an overarching Northern Ireland public sector pay policy is set.
This has yet to be put in place for 2018/19.
Rita Devlin, head of professional development at RCN (NI), warned the nursing shortage here will continue to grow unless the Department of Health takes urgent action to address disparity in pay.
Hospitals and care homes across Northern Ireland are facing a staffing crisis as it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit and retain nurses.
The situation has led to the closure of beds and soaring waiting times, particularly in overstretched emergency departments where 12-hour trolley waits are increasingly common.
Ms Devlin said departmental efforts to increase the number of nurses in Northern Ireland by creating additional training posts are being wasted by the pay disparity.
She explained: "Nurses here are paid less than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales anyway and now we have a situation where nurses in Northern Ireland aren't even getting a pay rise.
"It's like a leaking bucket, we have a real problem with recruitment, but retention is also a major issue and it's little wonder," she said.
Alliance Party health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said: "If the DUP and Sinn Féin are too irresponsible to get on with the job they were elected to do, then the Secretary of State should intervene to ensure the pay award is granted.
"If she can set the rates and do the budget, she can also ensure fair pay for workers."
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said: "Officials are doing everything they can to address this situation and fully understand the frustration of staff."