Thursday, 10 April 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Cowen: I call on the Minister for Health to intervene in the ambulance strike because of the latest reports that only limited progress has been made in talks today with the ambulance drivers. A countrywide strike is scheduled to begin next Monday unless a resolution can be found. Signs of that resolution have not materialised so far and the threat of a dispute is great. The dispute involves both ambulance drivers in the provinces  and in Dublin. In the provinces, 520 drivers and their attendants are threatening to stop work, and in Dublin, 90 Eastern Health Board personnel are also planning to strike.
A dispute by ambulance drivers could have major consequences, and disagreements appear to persist over emergency cover. I understand the Army is on stand-by if necessary. This would be a drastic step and might entrench the dispute even further. On the last occasion there was a strike involving ambulance personnel, the dispute lasted five weeks and there was much controversy about the cover provided during the strike. There was concern that some of the ambulances being used were not fully equipped cardiac ambulances, and there was controversy about the level of training of the personnel working the ambulances.
Given the vital nature of the ambulance service, I call on the Minister to intervene tonight to resolve this dispute. The Minister must realise the dispute will have to be resolved and it would be better if that were done before a damaging strike began. In the event that the dispute goes ahead, I ask the Minister to outline the contingency plan which should now be in place. When the nurses' dispute was threatened, a situation developed where the contingency plans were left until the very last minute and appeared to unwind at the time. Fortunately, the dispute did not go ahead, but had it done so there might have been a problem with cover. The Minister must ensure that nothing similar happens in any other dispute involving an essential service such as this one with ambulances.
Minister for Health (Mr. Noonan,: Limerick East): I thank Deputy Cowen for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to reply. I can give an assurance to the House that my first priority is that the dispute does not go ahead on 14 April, and I ask those involved to use the agreed processes for the resolution of this dispute. I assure the Deputy every effort is being made to ensure that if a strike is to take place there is an adequate arrangement in place to ensure no life is put at risk.
The team led by the Health Service Employers Agency, including health board management and the Department of Health, have met the unions involved. The Labour Relations Commission has intervened in the Dublin dispute and a meeting was fixed for 2.30 this afternoon.
In relation to the provincial dispute and contingency plans, discussions took place earlier this morning regarding the provision of an emergency service if the dispute goes ahead and some limited progress has been made. Both sides have agreed to meet again tomorrow and I hope it will be possible to agree an arrangement that will ensure all reasonable steps are taken to protect the lives of citizens if the dispute goes ahead.
Having regard to the particular circumstances involved and the fact that discussions are ongoing, I do not want to say anything else at this stage. I am sure the Deputy understands the  position and will join with me in urging all those involved to use the agreed processes for the resolution of these difficulties.
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