The Labour Relations Commission (LRC) has intervened in a major dispute between Health Service Executive management and ambulance staff that has stalled the opening of the new ambulance base in Loughglynn.
In an attempt to resolve the long-running row, LRC conciliation talks have been scheduled to take place in Castlebar on September 1.
HSE management and SIPTU representatives, representing staff, will also attempt to break the deadlock in a face-to-face meeting on August 21.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) reveal the depth of divisions between both sides. The row – over the emergency blackspot in west Roscommon – can be traced back to last December, when construction work was completed on transforming the former Garda station in Loughglynn into an ambulance base.
On December 4, the HSE began consultative talks with staff on how to operate the new base. According to HSE proposals, they sought to make it operational by “the utilisation of existing resources”.
“No additional resources were received for the Loughglynn base,” wrote Padraig O’Riordan, the area operations manager of the National Ambulance Service, in a letter released under FoI. As a result, staff would move from other bases in the area.
No agreement was reached on this and the matter was eventually referred to the LRC, who held talks between both sides on April 16, in SIPTU’s offices in Castlebar.
Still, however, there was no resolution. Then, management attempted to order staff to operate the base. In a letter to ambulance staff on April 22, Mr O’Riordan wrote: “It is a matter of regret that discussions and conciliation failed to resolve the dispute. “It is no longer reasonable nor acceptable to the HSE, to further delay the management of crews by control from Loughglynn Ambulance Base.
“In order to optimise existing resources with the aim of improving patient care through the provision of a more timely response into the west Roscommon area, ambulance management, with effect from June 15, 2015, will be instructing ambulance control staff to utilise all available resources to maximum and efficient effect, to benefit patient wellbeing, inclusive of operating out of Loughglynn Ambulance Base.”
However, staff refused to accept this instruction and, on June 16, Mr O’Riordan wrote to the LRC seeking an “urgent conciliation conference” to once again attempt to find a resolution.
He also said that the staff’s “refusal to accept the request” to make the base operational on June 15 was “in management’s view, a contravention of the PSA” (Public Service Agreement).
On June 18, Damian Mullarkey, the HSE’s area corporate employee relations management, also wrote to the LRC and expressed similar views.
He said that management had “made numerous attempts to progress matters” and added: “However, the most worrying development concerns ambulance crews declining requests to operate from the Loughglynn base. “And I have been advised by ambulance management of their concerns regarding this latest development in the context of patient safety.”
He also said that SIPTU had previously “declined to agree a joint referral of the matter to the Labour Court”. The LRC have arranged for talks to be held at SIPTU’s offices in Castlebar September 1, a source said, as the impasse continues.
The SIPTU view
SIPTU said that the HSE’s plan to move resources from Roscommon town to Loughglynn to operate the new ambulance base, is at the heart of the dispute. Pat Flannery, an industrial organiser with the union’s health division, said that they welcomed the opening of the base.
“We believe that it will be beneficial to the people of that area of Roscommon and the surrounding area,” he said. However, they object to the HSE’s plan to make it operational.
“The difficulty that we have with its opening is that they are depleting existing resources in Roscommon town in order to provide staffing to open the base. We believe that that is counterproductive,” he added.
“What management are planning to do is to utilise the concept of dynamic deployment and that is by moving people from an existing base to that base.”
Meanwhile, a HSE spokesperson said: “There is no change to the situation in Loughglynn. “It is not yet operational and discussions with staff and SIPTU are ongoing.”