Pat Cullen: the union boss leading Britain’s striking nurses

On the eve of the first ever national strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing last week, Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary, struck a tone that was more sorrow than anger. Nurses, she said, “acted with a very heavy heart . . . in an attempt to be heard, recognized and appreciated”.

As she prepares to take her members out for another day of action on Tuesday, allies say this carefully calibrated mix of determination and remorse is characteristic of the former community and mental health nurse from Northern Ireland, whose career has been characterized by an inventive ability. to challenge authority and secure 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, at the age of 18 she had already lost her mother, and cemented a closeness with her older sisters, four of whom became nurses.

Strongly influenced by her sisters’ example, Cullen entered the profession at the earliest possible age after leaving school, according to Rita Devlin, who, as assistant director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, worked closely with Cullen when she was appointed to the union’s top role in the region.

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

“She worked with all the communities that were suffering from conflict and conflict stress and a lot of people who would have been victims,” ​​Devlin said. “She would have seen PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]she wanted [heard] the harrowing stories and experiences people had.”

The experience contributed to a marked sense of injustice and a determination to eradicate it that was evident from her earliest years. At Loreto grammar school in Omagh, she was outraged that children on free school meals, including herself, had to queue separately for their food, making their status obvious to the other pupils. After her 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 patient care. 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 children’s bedroom windows was boarded at home, she said.

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

She successfully elected the membership to go on strike – 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 the members getting the pay parity they had long sought.

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

Cullen, who is married to a GP in Belfast, has called on all her reservoirs of indomitability since taking the helm of the RCN nationally last year. Soon after, she commissioned a prominent lawyer, Bruce Carr, to investigate allegations of a sexist and racist culture in the union. After receiving his report, which has not been made public, she declared that, regardless of position, “they implied . . . will face internal and regulatory consequences”.

A person familiar with the negotiations ahead of last Thursday’s walkout suggests she has sometimes betrayed a degree of naivety and inexperience with industrial disputes. Discussions about which services should be protected against last week’s strike action went down to the wire last Wednesday, and the process had shown a lack of “slickness”, which had complicated preparations, the insider noted.

But on the eve of the RCN’s second day of strike action, Cullen appears to have the support of the British public. At least as important, it seems that she has convinced the majority of the members that the strike action that the university has been facing for so long is now the only option.

Devlin said: “By her belief in the members, she empowers them to believe in themselves and use their voice and speak up 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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