'A review is not a reversal' – student nurses continue protest

Approximately 4,000 student nurses and midwives took to the streets of the capital today to protest against Government plans to phase out and eventually eliminate their pay. By Alison Spillane

Today's protest marked the second phase of a campaign of resistance launched last week by student nurses and midwives in conjunction with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), Siptu, and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

[Pictured: Student nurses Niamh Murphy and Alice Taylor at today's protest]

Last week 3,500 student nurses and midwives staged protests at 13 hospitals around the country. Following the demonstrations, outgoing Minister for Health & Children Mary Coughlan announced that the government's decision to gradually reduce and ultimately do away with the pay of fourth year nurses and midwives on mandatory work placements would be reviewed by the Secretary General of the Department of Health.

Speaking to Politico, students Katie McLaverty and Katie O'Donnell said, "A review is not a reversal. Review isn't a word in our vocabulary - it doesn't make a difference." Another student, Doireann Caddihy, added "It's not good enough, they need to reverse the decision."

When asked about their voting intentions many on the march pledged support for Independents but said a commitment by one of the main parties to reverse the cut would have a strong influence on their vote. However, students said they weren't confident any of the parties would reverse the decision, "The fact that they're already making so many cuts in the health system, [means that] we don't have much faith that they're going to reverse it" one woman commented, "but whoever comes forward to support us will get our vote, and they'll get the votes of all the people in this protest."

As the march made its way down D'Olier street, staff in the Blood Donation Clinic shouted words of support to the students from the windows, whilst workers in the TCD School of Nursing and Midwifery stepped outside to cheer on the demonstrators.

The protestors' chants turned to jeers outside the Department of Health and Children in Hawkins House on Poolbeg Street. Here, INMO General Secretary Liam Doran addressed the crowd saying the campaign would continue until the pay cut was reversed. He called on those present to exercise their vote by putting pressure on TDs in advance of the election on 25 February.

Siptu nursing official Louise O'Reilly told the demonstrators, "The people who took the decision to introduce slave labour into our health service are hiding behind a discredited government, they are cowards". She described the proposal to have pre-registration nurses and midwives work on wards for less than the minimum wage before having their pay cut altogether as "a new low". "We must punish the people who made this decision", she said. "We will hold our politicians to account and we will shame those cowards who will not pledge to reverse this cut."

USI President Gary Redmond was also present at the rally, his contributions were well received by the crowd.

Des Kavanagh, General Secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), said people were relieved to see Mary Harney gone but, "like the sting of a dying wasp, she had a go at the nurses before she went".

Mr Kavanagh also observed that today's protest was the largest ever demonstration by student nurses in Ireland.

Third year student Aisling Marr told the crowd, "This [cut] is an attack on our education and our profession, moreover it is an insult to everyone on the recipient end of nursing care in Ireland."

A small delegation of students then proceeded into the Department of Health where they delivered a letter for the outgoing Minister Mary Coughlan demanding that the cut be reversed and that the pay of pre-registration nurses and midwives be maintained at its current rate of 80% of the minimum point on the pay scale for staff nurses.

Closing the rally, Liam Doran told the students, "The work you do is more valuable than the work of any politician. The work you do is worth more than any retired politician who is going to live on €125,000 a year when they expect you to live on less than the minimum wage."

A delegation of students met representatives from Sinn Féin and the Green Party this afternoon. A meeting with Fianna Fáil TD Barry Andrews will take place tomorrow.

Mr Doran said if their demands were not met the next phase of the campaign would be industrial action and the union would ballot all pre-registration nurses from first to final year on the issue, with strike action commencing in early March. "The campaign continues, the campaign will endure, and the campaign will succeed."

There are currently 6,000 pre-registration nurses and midwives in the country, with significant voting power. As one speaker observed, this attack on frontline staff demonstrates how much the political elite undervalue healthcare workers in Ireland. Anything less than a full reversal of the cut is an insult to both the students and the people they care for.

Below is a copy of the letter delivered to the Department of Health & Children yesterday.