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29 May 2024

Pat Cullen’s Sinn Féin gambit

Is the former head of a powerful nursing union swapping clout for obscurity?

By Finn McRedmond

Pat Cullen – the general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – has resigned today and announced her plan to stand for Sinn Féin in the upcoming election. “After much consideration, I have decided that now is the right time for me to step forward into the political arena to champion the issues and opportunities for the community I love,” she said.

This is significant: Cullen oversaw the largest nurses’ strike in history; is one of the country’s most prominent trade union leaders; and intends to stand in the most marginal constituency in the United Kingdom – Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Sinn Féin beat the Ulster Unionist Party by just 57 votes in 2019). The strikes in 2023 granted Cullen genuine, tangible influence: she was 15th on the New Statesman’s Left Power List 2023, one rung above Tony Blair.

It is rather hard, then, to understand the motivation behind such a move. If Cullen wins in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, she will – as is the policy for Sinn Féin – not take her seat in Westminster. Trading a position of serious clout (as head of a powerful union) for one of relative obscurity (as an absentee Member of Parliament) seems rather pyrrhic.

There are two intractable ironies here. Six days ago – while still general secretary of the RCN – Cullen sent a message to nursing staff across the United Kingdom. “General elections are our greatest democratic exercise,” she said, just days before declaring her allegiances to an abstentionist party. That Cullen is going to join the ranks of Ireland’s most prominent republican party just after heading an institution whose name signifies its royal charter is remarkable too.

But in all of these contradictions we can extract a truth fundamental to Northern Ireland: fragile compromises and intractable inconsistencies are written into the fabric of the region. Cullen is perfect evidence of that fact.

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[See also: Will Keir Starmer’s agreement with the unions last?]

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