Pat Cullen, the general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), who is leading nurses on their first national strike in the union’s 106-year history, has said Rishi Sunak’s government has forced her members to resort to industrial action.
Ms Cullen, 58, said health secretary Steve Barclay and his ministers were responsible for the cancellation of thousands of NHS operations because of their refusal to negotiate on pay, with the RCN asking for a 19 per cent hike.
“This is a tragic day for nurses, a tragic day for patients,” she told BBC Breakfast. “And it’s tragic that this government has decided not to speak to us, talk to us, get into a room on the first day of strikes – that’s why we’re here today.”
Around 70,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries will be lost in England due to the nursing strike, according to the government, as picket lines are set up outside of hospitals across the country.
However, the RCN has said it will still staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care, with Christmas day-style rotas in operation to support adult A&E and urgent care.
Another demonstration is scheduled for 20 December and Ms Cullen has warned there was a “strong possibility” of further strikes in January unless the government changes its hardline stance.
“We’ll be reasonable with you if you are reasonable with us,” she said.
Ms Cullen is the youngest of seven children – six girls and one boy – born to Paddy and Annie McAleer, farmers in Carrickmore, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland.
Speaking to The Guardian, she remembered the example set by her eldest sister Bridie, 17 years her senior, in inspiring her choice of career.
“I remember her coming home in her beautiful nurse’s uniform talking passionately to us as a young family about what she’d been doing on her last shift,” she said.
“I remember thinking, even at that young age, it was just incredible how much she was able to touch people’s lives.”
Five of the six sisters ended up as nurses, with the sixth suffering from a learning disability, another motivating factor behind Ms Cullen’s decision to train in mental health nursing after taking her GCSEs.
While working at Holywell psychiatric hospital in Antrim in 1983, aged just 18, the future union leader became appalled by what she described to the newspaper as a “token economy system” then in operation, which saw staff punish difficult patients by taking away their prized possessions such as sweets, cigarettes and blankets.
“I felt it was totally unfair,” Ms Cullen said. “These people were ill; they had mental health problems. And some of these things that were withdrawn from them were very personal. I just felt that was such an injustice. Patients on the wards couldn’t cope without their own personal belongings.”
She was moved to protest hospital management, which eventually softened its approach.
“I think I did win it; I felt great about it,” she reflected: “I felt so brilliant for those patients.”
In an interview with The Belfast Telegraph in 2019, she outlined her later career, recalling her ascent through the ranks in Northern Ireland to become an assistant director of mental health services and professional head of nursing.
“I can honestly say that I loved every day of working in mental health,” Ms Cullen said. “I can’t imagine any other career that would have fulfilled me professionally or personally as much.
“I started out working in hospital before moving into the community, which was just mind-blowing and a privilege to look after people in their own homes.”
Ms Cullen, who is also a registered psychotherapist, was a community psychiatric nurse in Twinbrook and Poleglass during the Troubles and has said “the impact of the violence on mental health was shocking”.
Now married with children, she had further roles, including deputy director of nursing, safety, quality and patient experience in the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency (PHA) and working at the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).
She has also worked as the executive director of nursing and allied health professions within the PHA and HSCB.
Having started working for the RCN Northern Ireland in 2016, she became its director in May 2019.
In October 2019, RCN Northern Ireland took the unprecedented step of balloting members on industrial action, including walkouts, over pay and low staffing levels.
The union said that, despite intensive negotiations, it was unable to get movement from the Department of Health or the secretary of state to address issues over pay and to begin discussions on safe staffing.
Some 92 per cent of members voted in favour of strike action, which took place in December 2019 and January 2020.
Ms Cullen was seen as key to mobilising staff over the strike and spent considerable time visiting their workplaces and making the RCN’s case in the media.
The disruption caused and a sympathetic public proved instrumental in forcing the Stormont assembly, then suspended, to sit and thrash out a deal, with the RCN winning a better pay deal and the introduction of new legislation on safe nurse staffing levels.
“Pat had this amazing knack of appearing on the picket lines and just lifting the mood with a smile or a joke,” Robert Sowney, a nurse who has known her for 20 years, told The Times.
Rita Devlin, who succeeded Ms Cullen as the RCN’s acting director for Northern Ireland, added: “She’s got a wicked sense of humour and she’s a great raconteur. She’s very interested in people and she loves to chat.”
But Ms Devlin also described her predecessor as “a hard taskmaster” who “drives a hard ship”.
“She doesn’t expect anything that she is not prepared to do herself and she works extremely hard,” she said.
Pat Cullen was appointed acting general secretary and chief executive of the RCN in April 2021 before being given the position on an interim basis the following July.
Away from battling injustice on the wards, she reportedly enjoys sitting down to her sewing machine to make dresses and curtains and visiting the picturesque and quiet east coast of Donegal.
Additional reporting by agencies