The National Ambulance Service faces further industrial disruption around the country due to a two-day strike commencing tomorrow over union recognition.
The two twelve-hour stoppages from 7am to 5pm mark an escalation in the dispute, which has already seen two single days of strike action, during which Defence Forces ambulances had to be deployed to plug gaps in the service.
Up to 2010, the majority of the 1,800 National Ambulance Service personnel were represented by SIPTU, with fewer than 100 represented by Fórsa.
In that year, a breakaway group left SIPTU to set up the National Ambulance Service Representative Association which then affiliated with the Psychiatric Nurses Association.
However, the HSE has refused to accord the PNA/NASRA negotiating rights on behalf of the ambulance staff, and will not deduct their union subscriptions through the payroll system, as it does for other unions.
The HSE insists that it already recognises a number of unions for the ambulance grades, and to recognise more would lead to fragmentation, destabilisation and worsen industrial relations.
It says it is a well-established principle of public policy that fragmentation of union representation in the public sector is not in the interests either of the public or of workers.
It goes on to say that "...where grades of employee already have strong representation rights as is the case in the National Ambulance Service it is not appropriate for employers to recognise break-away unions" - as this would have a destabilising effect on good industrial relations.
The HSE stresses that the Labour Court has previously acknowledged the principle of engaging only with recognised trade unions in an earlier dispute involving the PNA and a different public sector employer.
It states: "With this in mind, National Ambulance Service will stand by the agreements that it has made with recognised unions and will not undermine those agreements by engaging with other associations or unions. This approach is in keeping within Government policy and supports the consolidation that is happening within the wider trade union environment".
PNA General Secretary Peter Hughes said that to date, the HSE has made "absolutely no effort" to resolve the dispute, forcing ambulance personnel into the unprecedented position of mounting a two-day strike.
He said the union's paramedic, advanced paramedic and emergency medical technician members have been denied the right to be represented by the union of their choice rather than a trade union "that the HSE wants to force them to join".
He accused the HSE of choosing to inflame the situation by refusing to recognise the right of ambulance personnel to be members of a PNA branch despite the fact that their branch represents "more members by far" than at least one of the two unions recognised by the HSE for frontline paramedics.
The PNA claims its NASRA branch now has over 500 members, though that figure is disputed by other unions.
Asked how many ambulance personnel have asked to have their union subscriptions submitted to the PNA/NASRA, the HSE said that it could not give this information as it would require them to process sensitive personal data regarding individuals' membership of a trade union, which would in turn give rise to concerns about compliance with the data protection regulations.
Responding to a query about how many went on strike as part of the NASRA dispute, the HSE said that on each day of strike, there were fewer than 100 members of staff who were rostered to work but who withdrew their labour.
Asked how many had pay deductions imposed because they failed to work due to strike action, the HSE said staff who withdraw their labour are not paid for any period of time during which their labour is withdrawn.
The HSE says the National Ambulance Service will ensure that service delivery to patients will not be compromised in any manner.
It notes that SIPTU which represents most frontline staff has confirmed that it expects its members to work as normal, while the PNA has not called upon members of other unions to participate in the strike, and has pledged to deliver emergency cover.
Managers who are qualified paramedics will be carrying out frontline duties, while the Department of Defence will again make a number of crewed ambulances available.
The previous strikes were on 22 January and 15 February.