2008, a year to forget


12-13 specialist breast cancer centres were recommended by the Prof O’Higgins report in 2000. His plans included one in Sligo to provide these vital services to the people of the Northwest. Breastcheck had been successfully rolled out in parts of Dublin and a country wide rollout was imminent, it seemed as if the Irish government had finally realised the serious threat that cancer posed to the lives of people in Ireland and had finally decided to act.
Fast forward to February 2007, Fianna Fail TD and Jr. Minister for health, Dr. Jimmy Devins and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern are pictured with a petition of some 13,000 signatures in an effort to bring much needed radiotherapy to Sligo and the people of the region. Within 6 months though, the Minister for Health, Mary Harney backed by the government announced that the services in Sligo General Hospital were to be closed, that there would be only 8 centres of excellence and patients from the Northwest would have to travel to Galway, Dublin or even further afield for life saving treatment. To add insult to injury, Breastcheck had still not being rolled out to the Northwest. Of course this all became clear after the general elections of 2007 and the northwest of the country was left facing an even more uncertain future then before.
Following protests in Sligo and Dublin late in 2007, a small group of cancer patients and survivors started a ‘campaign to retain’. Td’s, senators and counsellors from all parties attended campaign meetings, stood shoulder to shoulder with protestors and publicly stated their support for Sligo General hospital and the excellent services provided there by Mr. Tim O’Hanrahan and his team of consultants and specialists. Early 2008 saw more protests including a moving candlelit vigil outside Sligo General on a freezing cold Good Friday, attended by thousands. The campaign’s momentum continued to grow throughout the spring of ’08, culminating in one of the biggest concerts Sligo ever saw on April 26th. Again our TD’s and senators stood amongst the protestors, vying for their place in the photos and media coverage that followed, within a month however, their true loyalties were revealed when Fianna Fail TD’s from across the Northwest voted against a motion to save Sligo’s cancer services. Weeks later their colleagues in the senate followed suit and the worst fears of campaigners were realised, party loyalty and careers took precedence over the people they had promised to represent.
The summer of 2008 saw a new Taoiseach, a T├ínaiste from Donegal and hopes of change. In early June, more promises were made, this time a new luxury coach for those patients still forced to travel daily to UCHG. Yet despite initial hopes, it quickly became clear that nothing had changed at least not for the good. By the time September had arrived, campaigners had travelled to UCHG, Fianna Fail’s conference in Ballybrit and to the top of legendary Knocknarae. A petition had been lodged with Europe and campaigners had spent weeks travelling to the towns and villages across the northwest, handing out thousands of leaflets.




In September, the group met with the Minister for Health and Prof Tom Keane. They met a woman so detached from the reality of the Irish health system, there seemed little point talking to her. Here was a minister who refused to acknowledge the extent of the problems she helped create and a professor drafted in from Canada who refused to even meet with consultants on the ground in the Northwest or even visit the centres they had built up through hard work and dedication to their patients.Whatever the answers they were seeking they wouldn’t find them in Mary Harney’s offices, that much was very clear.

To coincide with Breast awareness month in October, MEPs Marion Harkin and Jim Higgins brought a delegation from the campaign over to Brussels. There we met Robert Madeline, the DG of Health in Europe, the contrast between this meeting and that with the Irish minister for Health was stark. Here was a civil servant who actually cared about people, their health and their rights, we spoke at length with him and the MEPS and returned home with renewed hope but also to an early budget.
You don’t need us to tell you the disaster the budget was, Budget 2009 attacked the young, the old and the sick and October and November saw protests countrywide. Harney appeared ever determined that ‘her’ cancer strategy would go ahead even though Drogheda’s move to Dublin was deferred, Waterford’s beds were slashed to 19 and Galway continued to struggle with the increased workload that followed the closure of Castlebars centre. The Irish people had to sit back and watch as the HPV vaccine was cancelled because the treatment that could save the lives of young women was deemed ‘poor value’ by Harney and the HSE. Sligo’s campaign continued unabated, hardy protestors joined the ‘Patients Together’ group in Dublin and marched once again to Kildare street. On the 1st of December they picketed the Minister for Health as she treated a group of international experts to a few days in the ‘Four Season’s’ in Dublin. The theme of the conference was ‘restoring the public’s faith’ in our cancer services, the irony was lost on nobody.
At the end of 2008, we still have a minister for health who received less first preference votes than there were mammograms in Sligo General last year. A minister for health with no party and no mandate and yet there she sits alongside the Taoiseach and our own T├ínaiste. The Northwest is still at risk of losing its cancer services, Breastcheck has not yet arrived and Senator Feeney’s luxury coach? ..The less said about that the better.

But the news isn’t all bad however, the EU accepted the campaign’s petition and it has now passed to the commission. The campaign has grown to include groups in 5 counties and the consultants and GPs of Sligo and SGH have set up their own committee and publicly stated their opposition to the ill thought out strategy. On top of that, councillors of all parties from all over the Northwest, signed a letter stating their support of the campaign.
Now in 2009 and with the local and European elections looming, the government will have to sit up and take notice and it’s up to all of us to make sure they do just that. Just as the consultants of SGH realised that this is more than just the loss of our cancer services we too have realised that this is more than just a campaign about cancer services. This campaign is about our rights and your rights, rights as Irish and European citizens, rights as patients, the rights of your children and family to free and equitable health care as promised by our constitution and your rights as a human being.
At a meeting in March a woman asked why her life was worth less than that of a woman in Dublin or Cork or Galway? Before she died, the same woman asked that the campaign never stop, that no-one, man or woman, of any colour, age or creed should suffer as she did, that she would not accept that her life was worth less, simply because of where she lived.
We agree and for that one reason alone, we will not stop, we will not be treated like second class citizens and we are not asking for our rights anymore, we are demanding them.

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