Over 90% of nurses vote to strike over pay and conditions
More than nine out of 10 Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members have voted in favour of strike action in protest over patient safety.
In an unprecedented development, 92% of RCN members in Northern Ireland have voted in favour of walk-outs and 96% of members have voted for industrial action.
It is the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that nurses have voted in favour of such drastic action in a bid to protect patients' lives and increase wages for hard-pressed nurses.
It is a devastating blow for officials and a row erupted last night after the Department of Health accused unions of "making demands they know the department cannot meet".
A spokeswoman said: "We fully accept that staff in health and social care feel deeply frustrated. The budgetary pressures across health and social care are clear for all to see.
"Despite claims to the contrary, there is no separate or untapped source of funding for pay increases.
"It all comes out of the one health budget. Every pound spent on one priority area is a pound not available for another.
"Industrial action this winter can only exacerbate an already very difficult situation."
However, RCN Director in Northern Ireland Pat Cullen stressed that nurses here have been pushed to breaking point by unsafe staffing levels.
As of June, there were more than 2,900 vacant nursing posts and the RCN has been calling on the Department of Health to act to address the situation, which has become so severe that patients face waits for bedpans, basic observations are not being carried out and dying patients are not getting proper care.
Most recently, excessive trolley waits in emergency departments have also been blamed on the shortage of nurses.
Ms Cullen said: "Northern Ireland nurses will be angered, but not entirely surprised, at this statement from the Department of Health.
"It is the same rhetoric that has been deployed for many years in seeking to justify a failure to ensure that we have enough nurses to provide safe and effective care for the people of Northern Ireland, and to demonstrate that the Department values the nursing workforce that it employs. Contrary to what the Department is claiming, the RCN is taking action primarily over the staffing crisis in our health service and not over pay parity.
"We are always prepared to continue to talk to the Department in order to try to find a solution that will be acceptable to our members but we have no confidence whatsoever that this discussion process will now suddenly lead to staffing and pay issues being adequately addressed by the Department.
"It is clear that officials have still not grasped the strength of feeling within the nursing workforce in Northern Ireland or the gravity of the crisis that is now engulfing the health service in Northern Ireland."
The RCN UK Council will meet early next week to decide what form industrial action will take. It could involve nurses refusing to carry out non-nursing duties, including housekeeping duties, right up to not undertaking any work at all for a set period of time.
Two unions, Unison and Nipsa, are also balloting members over possible strike action as the row over pay and conditions threatens to bring the health service to its knees.
Nurses in Northern Ireland are the lowest paid in the UK - a registered nurse at the top of band five here earns £797 a year less than a colleague with equivalent experience and qualifications in England and Wales. They are paid £1,427 less every year than their equivalents in Scotland.
UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said: "Nurses are the backbone of our local health service.
"The significance of their overwhelming decision to vote for strike action cannot be overstated."