​Sinn Féin supporters were delighted with the news that Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, is standing for their party for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the general election.

Published: 6 June 2024

That it’s such a marginal seat (just 57 votes separated the Ulster Unionist Party and SF) has been a constant worry for the lads in the Felons Club who dictate strategy.

At the end of May, bystanders wondered why the popular Michelle Gildernew was being allowed to quit as an MP to run for the EU parliament. But abracadabra, almost immediately after that sad announcement, up popped a lass from Carrickmore with a public profile so high she was fifteenth on the New Statesman’s 2023 Left Power List.

She has a background as a mental health and community nurse, has run the largest nursing union in the world with almost half a million members, a turnover of £96 million and close on almost a thousand staff and conducted herself creditably on the airwaves throughout the UK as a spokesperson for striking nurses.

“I have dedicated my life to improving conditions for health workers,” Ms Cullen explained “and I will bring that same determination to serving you all as MP for strong leadership and positive change.”

“Pat, you can’t if you fail to take your seat if elected,” was a typically unhelpful comment on social media. “Why would someone who has been a trade union lobbyist for decades, advocating legislative change via parliament, now seek to be part of a historically nonsensical abstentionist policy towards our parliament?”

And as another critic added, “You won’t serve anyone as an MP whether you’re elected to do it or not. You’ll refuse to take your seat and you will do what you’re told.”

Now why would anyone give up all that power and an annual salary of almost £200,000 for a non-job like that?

Guesses? The Shinners have been steadily plunging in the polls, Mary Lou McDonald is losing her lustre, Michelle O’Neill was humiliated at the Covid inquiry, the party has its eye on the Irish presidency in 2025 and it’s time for another woman with bright jackets and plenty of chutzpah.

Ms Cullen revealed in August last year that she believed that “the only hope for the NHS is reunification”, which considering the state of the Irish health service is the statement of a true believer. It sounds as if she and the Sinn Fein leadership could have big plans for her. If, of course, she wins the seat.

How can she be stopped?

Step forward warriors like Aileen Quinton, whose mother Alberta was murdered in the IRA Remembrance Day Enniskillen bomb in 1987. “How many nurses did they murder?” she asked. “All murdered in one bomb, that apparently there was ‘no alternative’ to.”

Alberta Quinton had worked full-time job as a nursing sister while bringing up four children and was known throughout Fermanagh as Sister Quinton. She and her friend 70-year-old retired nurse Jessie Johnston and her retired ambulance-driver husband Kit were chatting when the bomb blew them up. Student nurse Marie Wilson was only 20 when she died buried in rubble. Her father Gordon’s account of their last conversation as he lay beside her moved people throughout the British Isles and far beyond.

“General elections are our greatest democratic exercise,” declared Ms Cullen a few days before resigning her job to join an organisation that eulogises murderers.

On social media there are innumerable people pointing out the ironies of Ms Cullen’s new loyalties. Many cite the horrors endured by a health service that as one critic put it, was “distracted by putting people’s kneecaps back together, or reattaching various limbs, or dealing with a variety of other physical trauma (entry/exit wounds, Semtex burns and baseball bat bruises) which seem unique to that corner of the UK”.

So far Ms Cullen has evaded answering awkward question, and has not for example responded to News Letter queries as to her view of IRA violence. I say bring them on. As the one-time prison governor and now highly influential counter-extremist academic Fermanagh man Ian Acheson says, asking her about her personal morality on terrorists “her party still venerates as ‘patriots’ is highly valid…and highly inconvenient”.

The water could become much choppier than Ms Cullen was led to believe.

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