Nurses in Northern Ireland have voted to take strike action over pay and staffing levels.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the region have backed industrial action for the first time in the organisation’s 103-year history.
The action comes amid a dispute with Health and Social Care (HSC) management in Northern Ireland over pay rates and staff shortages.
More than 8,000 RCN members were balloted over the last four weeks and the response rate was 43%.
Of the members who responded, 96% voted to take industrial action short of a strike and 92% voted for outright strike action.
Legislation in England and Wales that requires a minimum 50% ballot response rate before any strike action can go ahead does not apply in Northern Ireland.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said: “This is a day we had hoped not to reach and the first time RCN members have voted to strike in our 103-year history.
“We did not take the decision to ballot members lightly.
“But the fact that nurses in Northern Ireland have now voted so overwhelmingly for industrial action, including strike action, shows how clearly they can see the risk to patient safety from staff shortages.”
She added: “In addition, the fact that the real value of nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen by around 15% in the last eight years is a fundamental unfairness that must be urgently addressed.
“Patients hugely value the care nursing staff provide but it’s clear that health service leaders in Northern Ireland do not.
“This overwhelming result is a tribute to the hard work undertaken by RCN members and staff in Northern Ireland.
“Our governing council will now meet to approve plans to take forward industrial action, including strike action, in Northern Ireland.”
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said: “Today, nursing staff in Northern Ireland have spoken clearly and collectively on behalf of patients and the people of Northern Ireland.
“Nurses are no longer willing to see patients being denied the healthcare services to which they are entitled.
“The 3,000 nursing vacancies that currently exist within the HSC are having a detrimental impact on patient care and adding enormous pressure to the existing nursing workforce, who are doing everything they can to care for patients.”
She added: “Nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has fallen significantly behind that in the rest of the UK.
“Not only is this completely unfair but it sends a strong message to nurses that they are not valued or respected by decision-makers and employers.
“Equally importantly, it makes it difficult to recruit and retain the nurses that we desperately need to provide healthcare to the people of Northern Ireland.
“If we continue to treat nurses in this way, the health and social care system in Northern Ireland will move rapidly from crisis to collapse.”
In response to the RCN ballot result, a spokesman for Stormont’s Department of Health said: “The department will be holding further detailed discussions with the RCN and other trade unions on Friday.
“Dialogue remains the only way forward.
“With a NI public sector pay policy now in place for 2019-2020, we plan to table a formal pay offer as soon as possible.
“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.”
He added: “We fully accept that staff in health and social care feel deeply frustrated.
“However, trade unions are making demands they know the department cannot meet.
“Industrial action this winter can only exacerbate an already very difficult situation.”