More than 12,000 protestors – including hundreds of students – flocked to Dublin’s streets this afternoon demanding improved pay and conditions for the country’s nurses, in the most dramatic demonstration yet of public opinion on the issue.
Nurses, who have gone out on strike three times in the last two weeks after unsuccessful talks with the government, gathered at the Garden of Remembrance alongside trade unions, political parties and students’ unions before marching en masse to the gates of the Dáil.
If the weather moved from damp to miserable as the march proceeded, with bitter winds tugging at marchers’ flags, the atmosphere remained ebullient. Protestors shouted: “Open the purses, pay the nurses.”
A cohort of around 50 students gathered in Front Square before heading to the Garden of Remembrance to join the crowds. Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), the Union of Students in Ireland, Trinity People Before Profit and Trinity’s Nursing and Midwifery Society were represented at the march.
Speaking to The University Times at the march, TCDSU President Shane De Rís said that “the effects of this strike will be far-reaching, especially for student nurses as they prepare to enter the workforce”.
“At the minute”, De Rís said, “there’s a lack of opportunity and unfair working conditions for nurses across the board. We’re marching today for opportunities for our student nurses when they graduate”.
Richard Boyd Barrett, the leader of People Before Profit, told The University Times that the level of turnout would “snap Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar into reality. Because they’ve spent the last number of weeks spinning and propagandising to cover over the truth of what’s happening in our health service”.
“We have a dire crisis of staffing levels, and it is all down to pay”, he added. “This government keep trying to deny that it’s to do with pay, but the facts speak for themselves.”
Speaking to The University Times, Michelle Byrne, the Vice-President for Campaigns of USI, said: “We’re marching because, in 2016, USI ran a survey to say 93 per cent of student nurses are thinking of emigrating and that’s because of conditions, because of short staffing.”
“This affects everyone, because everyone needs a nurse”, she said.
Conchúir Ó Radaigh, one of the leaders of Take Back Trinity and a key figure within the Take Back the City housing group, said it was “brilliant” to see the size of the turnout: “Today what we’re seeing is bigger than a dispute over pay.”
Marchers proceeded down O’Connell St before forking left onto the quays and crossing the river. They ended up outside the Dáil, where crowds gathered in front of a makeshift stage to hear speeches from students and trade union leaders.
Martina Harkin-Kelly, the President of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), told those assembled that it was not only nurses’ pay that had been cut. The government, she said had “also stripped us of any allowances and any extra pay that we had”.
“Every nurse and midwife – and indeed those members of the psychiatric nurses that are here – every single one of us has at least a certificate, a diploma, a degree, a higher diploma, a master’s, and some have PhDs”, she said.
Speaking to The University Times at the march, Neil Donohue, the Graduate Officer of the INMO, described the struggle to retain nurses as an “absolute crisis”.
“We’ve found that over 70 per cent said they’re going to leave the country upon qualifying”, he said. “It’s extremely concerning.”