Nurses working in health and social care services in Northern Ireland will be asked to vote next month on whether to take industrial action, up to and including going on strike.
The move has been prompted by continuing disillusionment and anger over pay and continuing nursing staff shortages across health and social care, says the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
The announcement comes when nearly 3,000 nursing posts in healthcare remain unfilled, with a similar level of vacancies estimated in nursing homes.
Pay for nursing staff within the health service in Northern Ireland continues to fall behind England, Scotland and Wales, says the RCN.
The real value of nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen by 15% over the past eight years, while nursing agency costs has risen year on year.
Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: “The time has come when our members are saying clearly to us that they can no longer continue to work under the current conditions.
“The palpable sense of disillusionment and even anger among RCN members in Northern Ireland over staffing and pay continues to grow. As a result, the RCN UK Council has endorsed a timetable and process, recommended by the RCN Northern Ireland Board, to ballot members working within [health and social care] services in relation to industrial action, including strike action.”
She added: “We all know that nurses in Northern Ireland can go anywhere in the world to work. To date, pay discussions have been unsuccessful and there is now nothing to keep our newly-qualified nurses at home.
“As a profession, we are no longer prepared to tolerate the risk that low staffing levels pose to patients, nursing staff, and the people of Northern Ireland.”
She concluded: “No nurse that I know would ever want to take industrial action but we have simply been left with no choice – it’s a sad day for nursing in Northern Ireland when it has come to this.”