He was the head of the union that ministers thought they could do business with, but then announced the most extreme nurses’ strike ever.
Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), had helped negotiate a wage deal to end a wave of NHS strikes. But members rejected their leader’s advice to accept the proposals and rejected them, leaving her out in the cold.
Despite a limited result, he later insisted that the government’s offer was “simply insufficient” and announced plans for further strike action.
For Ms. Cullen, who comes from a family of nurses, the setback was huge. After making her bottom line public, she will now have to return to the negotiating table.
Part of the challenge will be to convince ministers that he still has the confidence of members and is therefore in a good position to negotiate. Some might consider his future as union leader.
But he has shown that he can change his mind. When talks to resolve the pay dispute collapsed in the run-up to Christmas last year, Ms Cullen and Steve Barclay, the health secretary, seemed worlds apart.
The RCN had called for a pay rise of five per cent above the RPI’s inflation rate, while Mr Barclay was complying with the independent pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 increase.
Last month, the two sides reached a compromise, with RCN leaders backing new proposals for a five per cent pay rise this year, plus one-off bonuses.
Ms Cullen had initially butted heads with Mr Barclay, accusing him of a “macho approach” and suggesting he disliked a female-dominated profession – claims described as “completely false” by government sources.
She became one of the union leaders the Health Minister thought most reasonable, but when it came to gaining the support of her members for the wage offer “forced” out of government by strikes, she hit a roadblock.
A perception of intimacy with ministers and the RCN’s decision to negotiate separately from other unions may have put it at odds with more militant voters. Calls to accept the deal were met with a vigorous “Vote Reject” campaign.
Mrs Cullen, from Carrickmore in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, says breastfeeding runs in her blood. She is the youngest of six girls, four of whom have entered the profession.
A community psychiatric nurse in Twinbrook and Poleglass during the Troubles, she spoke fondly of her work in mental health, telling the Belfast Telegraph in 2019: “I can’t imagine any other career that would have fulfilled me so professionally or personally. “
In May 2019 she became director of RCN Northern Ireland, having worked for the union since 2016, and was seen as key in mobilizing province staff to vote for industrial action in 2019 and 2020.
In April 2021, he took over the leadership post, going on to oversee the RCN’s biggest ever strikes last December, followed by further walkouts in January and February.
Earlier this year, Cullen insisted the strikes would continue “for as long as necessary.” Now that her favorite deal has fallen through, the end of the disruption seems further away than ever.