Health services key in a new Ireland

Colum Eastwood has highlighted one stumbling block that must be tackled to help win a referendum on Irish unification: namely, the NHS.

The SDLP leader was among those speaking on a panel discussion at the weekend, put together by a group called Ireland’s Future, and broadcast via YouTube and social media.

While he said it is his belief that “the UK is coming to an end”, he conceded that the South’s health system is a major turn off as far as reunifying the island goes.

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“If I was running the anti-unity campaign, I’d just be running ads about how much it costs to go to the doctor,” he said.

Colum Eastwood

“My own mother would have some difficult conversations about that ...

“The idea we could run a campaign going into it saying ‘you’re going to have to pay €60 or whatever it is to see a doctor’, we will lose the campaign on that alone.

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“And that’s talking to ordinary nationalists, never mind unionists.”

Joining him on the panel was Sinn Fein national chairman Declan Kearney, who agreed that “health is pivotal”.

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All of this comes in the run up to the next NI Assembly election, expected to take place in May, which polls suggest could return Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Assembly.

At one point in the online discussion, the host remarked that “people in the north are constantly shocked by the fact you’ve got to pay 50 or 60 quid to go to the doctor in the republic even if it’s only something you know is rather minor”.

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Aoife Moore, a journalist for the Irish Examiner, originally from Derry, was among those on the panel.

“My own mammy I’m sure wouldn’t mind me saying she would quite like a united Ireland but she has told me in no uncertain terms she will not be paying to go to the doctor,” she said.

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“It’s not something northern people want to give up – nor should they give up.

“I live in Dublin, and the first time I went to the doctors I was out the door and the receptionist had to call me back and say:

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“‘There’s a card machine there and you need to pay ...’

“It’s €60 every time I go to the doctors! That’s even if want a repeat prescription I have to go back and pay €60.”

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She went on to add that even though such fees are built into the southern system, “the health service in the south is not, because you’re paying for it, any better – it is also buckling,” just like the free-at-the-point of delivery NHS.

However Mr Eastwood also told the panel that the health payments issue is not perhaps as much of a clinching issue as it once was.

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It is, he said, “not quite the argument that it used to be”, because of the dire strain now being felt in the UK health system.

“My office is inundated with people who are languishing on waiting lists for years upon years,” he said.

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“It is absolutely shocking. the health service is at point of collapse.”

Mr Kearney likewise indicated that change is needed in the health systems on both sides of the border, rather than being “simply about taking the north and bolting it onto what exists in the south”.

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Instead, he said “health needs to be understood as a right” and any new 32-county Ireland must be “rights-based”.