HEALTH Minister James Reilly sparked outrage from nurses with a "don't give up the day job" remark at a conference where they have been voting on strike action.
The gaffe-prone minister was forced to bring one nurse for a private meeting and offer an apology for the comments, which were made as he finished his speech to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO).
Bolatito Aderemi, a 61-year-old nurse who has worked in Dublin for the past 40 years, looked shocked as she was singled out by the cabinet minister.
Ms Aderemi had begun singing a protest anthem, before Dr Reilly pointedly told her: "Don't give up the day job."
Colleagues who heard the remark were outraged as they jeered the minister for his comment, which came just minutes after he had told nurses that cuts had to be made to the health pay bill.
The INMO has been threatening major industrial action over further changes to pay and conditions after the Croke Park II deal collapsed last month.
Delegates voted unanimously for industrial action if the Government legislates to change pay or conditions.
Impact's health-service workers also voted at their conference in favour of a ballot to strike.
Dr Reilly would have been expected to calm tempers at a terse encounter with the INMO in Letterkenny. Instead, he left delegates seething.
After initially being given the silent treatment, the minister seemed to win nurses over a little, prompting laughter with a joke about his fall during a hospital visit earlier in the week.
Then, his surprise announcement of a new chief nursing officer in his department actually drew applause.
But proceedings turned sour when he made the barbed comment at Ms Aderemi.
"The minister embarrassed me big time," she said.
The minister later moved to defuse mounting anger among INMO delegates by apologising to the Nigerian nurse at a private meeting with her. "He shook my hand and went to hug me and he apologised and I accepted that apology," said Ms Aderemi afterwards. "I am passionate about nursing and nurses have had enough cuts and enough cutbacks to patient care. So I was just singing that to the minister. I didn't expect that (response) but it's done now."
Dr Reilly later tried to play down the incident, saying: "I was told somebody had taken offence but there was no intention to offend anybody. I explained the nature (of the comment) and I think we both understand what I meant."
Earlier he had told the delegates the Government could no longer sustain current costs in the health service and that the HSE had to make pay savings of €150m in 2013.
The minister said he hoped that weekend talks with the LRC would resolve the dispute.
But speaking after the speech, the INMO's general secretary Liam Doran told the Irish Independent that nurses would have "no choice" but to ballot for action if the LRC talks fail.
Delegates have voted to ballot for industrial action if pay cuts are imposed.
Mr Doran added: "If the Government parties vote to impose cuts, they will be voting for strike action."
Meanwhile, health workers at Impact this week voted to ballot for strike action if their working week is increased and if pay cuts are imposed upon them.