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The 1999 Irish nurses’ strike: nursing versions of the strike and self-identity in a general hospital


  • Gary D. Brown MSc PhD RNT RGN,

  • Anna-Marie Greaney BNS MA RNT RGN,

  • Mary E. Kelly-Fitzgibbon MSc RM RGN,

  • Jane McCarthy BNS MSc RNT RM RGN

Anna-Marie Greaney,
Department of Nursing and Healthcare Studies,
Institute of Technology,


Aim.  The aim of this paper is to report findings from a study investigating nurses’ experiences of strike in one public general hospital in the Republic of Ireland.

Background.  October 1999 heralded the first nationwide nurses strike in the Republic of Ireland. The strike reflected an international shift towards industrial action in a profession which had previously viewed such action as the antithesis of professional behaviour.

Methods.  A focused ethnographic approach studied a group of striking Registered Nurses, not as a culture per se, but as a collection of individuals sharing a common human experience. A purposive sampling approach identified eight information-rich cases from a modified quota structure. Semi-structured interviews were carried out immediately prior to, during and at the end of the 1999 strike. The participants also maintained journals which were explored during the interviews. Data were analysed using a constant comparative approach, seeking to achieve category saturation.

Findings.  Four strike versions were identified. The anticipatory version is constructed as an inevitable protest, the orientation version as history-making solidarity and the performing version as a job of work. The withdrawal version is constructed as a conspiracy from which nurses are excluded. These versions portray ongoing tension that is experienced between conflicting self-identities of Registered Nurses as nurses and as strikers. The analysis revealed strategies adopted to resolve tensions between these identities within the dimensions of carer, patient advocate, multidisciplinary team member and professional.

Conclusions.  Debate on such potentially contentious issues by individual nurses, hospital managers and union leaders may facilitate awareness and preparation in advance of any future industrial action. Strategies that may be helpful in the event of a strike include a prestrike orientation programme for the entire organization, a support system for staff during the strike and informal de-briefing among all staff in the context of a social gathering when the strike is over.