Giving the go-ahead at an extraordinary meeting this afternoon, RCN leaders said they were left with no choice but to push ahead with the ballot as concerns escalated over the country’s staffing “crisis”.
“The decision taken today is unprecedented in the history of the RCN”
They said the matter had been made worse by the pay inequalities faced by nurses in Northern Ireland, compared with their colleagues across the rest of the UK.
The RCN claimed there were currently 2,600 unfilled nursing posts across the system, with a similar level of vacancies estimated in nursing homes.
These shortages were leading to rising agency spending, long patient waits and mounting pressures on the nurses working to keep services afloat.
In addition, the college said the real value of nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland had fallen by 15% over the last eight years and was lagging behind England, Scotland and Wales.
The absence of a stable government has meant pay talks in Northern Ireland have been unable to progress in the same way as the other UK countries.
However, discussions are currently underway between the Department of Health and trade unions including the RCN over a new Agenda for Change deal.
Fiona Devlin, chair of the RCN Northern Ireland board, said: “The decision taken today is unprecedented in the history of the RCN.
“Members of the RCN Northern Ireland Board have been left with no option but to ballot RCN members in Northern Ireland as a result of the total inaction to address the staffing crisis facing health care in Northern Ireland.
“This situation is compounded by nurses in Northern Ireland being the lowest paid across the UK.”
”The department takes seriously the concerns from the RCN membership”
Department of Health
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said the college was taking immediate steps in preparation to ballot members in the coming weeks.
“No nurse in Northern Ireland wishes to take any form of industrial action,” she said. “However, as a profession, we are no longer prepared to tolerate the risk to patients, nurses and the people of Northern Ireland.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said: ”The department takes seriously the concerns from the RCN membership regarding appropriate nurse staffing in all services provided to people who require nursing care.
“We highly value the nursing workforce and the department is committed to doing everything it can, within the current budget constraints, to ensure a fair pay award settlement this year for nurses and indeed the entire HSC workforce.”
She highlighted how the department had been “proactively” addressing the nursing shortages in Northern Ireland including by increasing investment in pre-registration training from 709 places in 2015-16 to 1,025 places in 2019-20.
”We are therefore disappointed at the RCN’s announcement, particularly as talks on the refresh of Agenda for Change pay, terms and conditions are continuing with HSC employers and trade unions, including the RCN,” added the spokeswoman.
”The department remains engaged in this process and, as ever, is willing to talk with trade unions at any time.”