3 February 2000 Edition

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Self interest and sectarianism in the Assembly


``Damned if she did and damned if she didn't.'' This was how Sinn Féin Assembly member John Kelly summed up the recent decision by Minister for Health Bairbre de Brún to build the new regional maternity unit at the Royal Group of Hospitals site in Belfast.

  I am passionately concerned with health issues and I want to be in a position to influence change  
SDLP Assembly member Carmel Hanna, who was against de Brún's decision. She was so overcome by that declared passion that she could not bring herself to turn up for the vote

The decision, announced by the Minister on Thursday, 27 January, caused the usual predictable sectarian controversy. During the media feeding frenzy and the Assembly debate Bairbre de Brún was accused of making the decision on political grounds as opposed to the best clinical advice and consultation. The needs of mothers, women and babies were trampled into the ground in the rush to condemn the Sinn Féin minister, who was in a no win situation.

The media and the array of unionists who lined up to attack the move ignored the fact that the decision had been put on hold by no less than five six-county health ministers and that Bairbre de Brún had promised to make the decision as soon as possible after taking up office to end years of uncertainty and debate. The Sinn Féin minister said her choice was based on the sound medical advice she had received, examination of the specially commissioned Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment analysis and economic appraisals of all the options as well as listening to various interest groups, women, mothers, and health professionals.

In the week prior to her announcement, the Health and Social Services committee of the Assembly voted to advise the minister to locate the regional maternity services at the Belfast City Hospital site. In the ensuing publicity, what was conveniently ignored was the fact that two of the committee members, Monica McWilliams and Carmel Hanna, both voted to keep the services in their own constituency. Carmel Hanna of the SDLP voted against both her party colleagues on the committee, who are also incidentally the Chair and Vice Chair of the Committee. All the unionists predictably voted in favour of the City Hospital.

On Monday last, the DUP's Iris Robinson proposed a motion in the Assembly that they should endorse the committee's decision to locate the maternity services at the City Hospital. While declaring that the committee favoured the option on clinical grounds, the tone of the debate soon proved otherwise. During Mrs Robinson's proposing speech she said: ``It was clear that ministerially, the only desired political result was to be a West Belfast Hospital to satisfy nationalist West Belfast. Some in this chamber may not like to face this but there is a chill factor at the Royal. It is my considered opinion that her conclusions were based on narrow political interest.''

Mark Robinson of the DUP was quick to follow in his colleague's footsteps claiming: ``Since a West Belfast minister, aided and abetted by a West Belfast Chairman of the Health committee, decided in favour of a West Belfast Hospital, members can only draw their own conclusions.''

The Ulster Unionist position was articulated by Alan Mc Farland, who repeatedly referred to the ``babies coming out'' and ``women's bits and pieces''.

Carmel Hanna of the SDLP, who had spent the previous week courting the media in favour of the City Hospital and condemning the minister's decision, also spoke during the debate, saying: ``I am passionately concerned with health issues and I want to be in a position to influence change.'' She was so overcome by that declared passion that she could not bring herself to turn up for the vote.

The vote itself, when it came down to it, said more about the nature of the condemnation of Bairbre de Brún's decision than the clinical decision that was taken. All the unionist parties voted in favour of the City Hospital and Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party all voted against the motion. The fact of the matter is that if Bairbre de Brún represented any other party and any other constituency and the Royal Hospital was located in any other constituency, the DUP and the other unionists would have had no problem with the decision.

When the sectarian rumpus over the decision has fizzled out, what can be predicted with total confidence is that this affair can now be recorded for posterity as the only occasion on which issues affecting women were at the centre of a major political debate in that august chamber.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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