Pat Cullen: the leader of the union of British nurses on strike

On the eve of the first-ever national strike in Royal College of Nursing history last week, Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary, struck a tone that spoke more of sadness than anger. The nurses, she said, “acted with a very heavy heart. . . in order to be heard, recognized and valued”.

As she prepares to take her members out for a second day of action on Tuesday, allies say that carefully calibrated mix of determination and regret is characteristic of the former community and mental health nurse from Northern Ireland, whose career has been marked by a cunning ability to challenge authority and get results.

Born 58 years ago in County Tyrone, the daughter of a farmer, Cullen grew up in a family of strong women. The youngest of six sisters and one brother, by the age of 18 she had already lost her mother, cementing a closeness with her older sisters, four of whom became nurses.

Heavily influenced by the example of her sisters, Cullen entered the profession as soon as possible after leaving school, according to Rita Devlin, who as associate director of the RCN in Northern Ireland worked closely with Cullen when she was named head of the union in the area.

Cullen and Devlin grew up during the Troubles, the period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s when sectarian strife erupted in Northern Ireland. Living in a tight-knit rural community, Cullen was isolated from the worst of the violence, but eventually went to work in Belfast where she found herself dealing with its consequences.

“She was working with all the communities that were suffering from conflict and the stress of conflict and with many people who would have been victimized,” Devlin said. “She would have seen PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]she would have [heard] the poignant stories and experiences people have had.

The experience added to a marked sense of injustice and a determination to root it out that was evident from his early years. At Loreto High School in Omagh, she became furious that children on free school meals, including herself, had to queue separately for their food, making their status obvious to other students. After his complaints, the practice was stopped.

Later, as assistant director of nursing at a psychiatric hospital in Antrim, she received death threats after trying to change procedures and improve the treatment of patients. In an interview with The Irish Times this month, she described finding a dead cat on the bonnet of her car. “My daughter was three months old at the time and my son was five. One of the windows in the children’s room was installed at home,” she said.

When she became director of the RCN in Northern Ireland in 2019, she was determined to address not only severe staff shortages, but also a long-standing pay gap between nurses in the region and the rest of the UK. United.

She succeeded in getting members to vote for industrial action – the first time the union, which had long attracted members precisely because of its opposition to strikes, had staged a stoppage. Three days of action resulted in members receiving the pay equity they had long sought.

“She is extremely brave and I think [the members] very quickly realized that they had a leader who believed in them and was willing to work to make sure they got what was right,” Devlin said.

Cullen, who is married to a GP in Belfast, has needed all her tanks of indomitable since taking over as NCR national leader last year. Soon after, she appointed a prominent lawyer, Bruce Carr, to investigate allegations of sexist and racist culture within the union. After receiving her report, which has not been made public, she said that regardless of their position “those involved . . . will face internal and regulatory consequences”.

A person familiar with the negotiations leading up to last Thursday’s walkout suggests that at times it betrayed a degree of naivety and inexperience with labor disputes. Discussions about which services were to be shielded from last week’s strike hit the thread last Wednesday, and the process showed a lack of “smoothness”, which complicated preparations, the insider noted.

However, on the eve of the second day of the MRC strike, Cullen appeared to have the support of the British public. At least as important, it seems to have convinced the majority of its members that the strike the college has so long opposed is now its only option.

Devlin said, “Through her trust in the members, she empowers them to believe in themselves, to use their voices and to speak for themselves and I think that’s her greatest quality. I think she helps others see what is possible.

Additional reporting by Jude Webber in Dublin

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