Friday, June 3, 2011

Sligo's Cancer Services & the Illusion of 'Democracy'

In the run-up to the general election in the twenty six counties earlier this year, the usual rash of political promises were made by those hoping to be elected to Leinster House. In the Sligo/North Leitrim constituency, probably the one single issue that was to the fore in that campaign and indeed throughout the past couple of years, has been the removal of breast cancer services from Sligo General Hospital and the campaign to have it returned.

Despite massive public opposition, in 2009 Sligo's Breast Cancer Services were finally shut down and transferred to University College Hospital Galway (UCHG). The Health Service Executive (HSE) rationale was that UCHG was one of the eight new centres of excellence established by the government  where those from the north-west requiring treatment would recieve superior treatment than Sligo could provide, despite Sligo's excellent record in cancer care.

 100 day Countdown Near Sligo General Hospital
The reality was totally different as campaigners and medical personnel had warned of in the run-in to the transfer of services. UCHG was already having difficulty as a result of government cutbacks in the health service coping with its present workload and patient care before they ever had to deal with the increased volume of cancer sufferers from the north west.

Since the move, government cutbacks have caused chaos at times for the medical staff trying to provide an essential service and for patients who have had to endure long waits, lying on trolleys, canceled appointments and delayed surgery. Indeed the numbers of patients, including cancer sufferers, forced to lie on trolleys at UCHG in 2010 reached an all-time high of 4,100. Those figures are set to be surpassed in 2011 as so far this year the numbers confined to trollies has been increasing steadily on last years record high.  Most days the numbers effected are somewhere between 20 and 40 patients.

In April the HSE's own Healthstat survey confirmed UCHG as the state's worst hospital. So much for the hyped up 'centre of excellence'!

 Health Minister James Reilly
Just over a year ago (March 29 2010) the then Fine Gael spokesperson on Health, now Minister for Health, James Reilly made a firm commitment to return the services to Sligo, describing the transfer of Sligo's cancer services to Galway the previous year as “not a balanced approach to cancer care”.

Yet as recently as this week that very same James Reilly, now the Minister with responsibility for this issue, replying to a question in Leinster House as to fulfilling their 100 day pledge, the Minister refused to give any answer as to if and when the promised return of services would occur.

All the candidates bar the Green party's Johnny Gogan, expressed their support for the return of the cancer services to Sligo General Hospital if they were elected and their parties were in government. Specific promises were made, and recorded during live debates on Ocean FM radio and at a public meeting in the Clarion Hotel that was broadcast live on the internet (click on the video below).

In particular, the Fine Gael candidates, Minister John Perry and Deputy Tony McLoughlin and the then Labour candidate and now Senator Susan O'Keefe made specific commitments that the cancer services would be returned within 100 days of them taking office.  Not only did they give those commitments, they also promised to resign their seats if the pledges were not delivered as promised.  Indeed Labour's commitment went even further, pledging not just to return breast cancer services to Sligo but to actually make Sligo General Hospital a ninth centre of excellence.

With just 15 days to go until that deadline expires, it is clear that this Fine Gael/Labour coalition have no intention of re-instating these services despite all their promises. Once again, people are being betrayed by those who claim to represent them and their interests.

A spokesperson for the Save our Cancer Services - North West told the Sligo Today website that the Ministers reply sounded “as if Mary Harney herself wrote it”.

Former Health Minister Mary Harney
In relation to the pre-election commitments the spokesperson added that “we have strong clear commitments they (breast cancer services) will be restored and if this letter means otherwise than we are talking about an imminent letter of resignation from John Perry followed by a similar one from Tony McLoughlin.”

That was the clear pre-election promise they both gave and this turn of events could not only turn out to be tragic for Sligo General Hospital and the provision of cancer care in this region but also for both these politicians. Their commitment was not just that services would be restored but that in the event that that did not materialise they would resign”.

Yesterday (June 2) Minister Perry refused to say on local radio whether the services would be restored or not within the 100 days. In a live interview on Ocean FM's North West Today programme, Perry refused to give a straight answer to any question relating to the services. Unhappy with the issue of the pledge and his promise to resign being raised if the services were not returned, Perry hung up in the middle of the interview. (Click on the image below to listen to the interview)

While campaigners and the public in general throughout the north west will be extremely angry at this U-turn by both Fine Gael and Labour, they should not be surprised. Already, just three months into this coalition, there are a litany of election promises that have been binned now that they have secured power and have their backsides on Ministerial seats.  

These broken promises show the true nature of our so-called democracy. It shows how relying on electing politicians every five years is to a large degree meaningless as we have no control over what they do, what decisions they make once there. Allowing us to occasionally put a mark beside a candidate on a ballot paper is designed not to enable change or allow people's participation in decisions effecting them, their communities or their country. No, it is designed to give people that illusion while the decision making processes remain firmly within the grip of the political and business classes that control this country.

Real democracy must be a continuous process of decision making relating to all aspects of society with those who are affected by those decisions controlling the decision-making process and must be based upon economic democracy. Power and influence are only ever wielded by those who control the wealth and wealth producing means in society. Therefore to have real democracy then it must be based upon the ownership and control of the means of production by the mass of working people.  Without that ownership and control, meaningful change and a just truly democratic society is impossible.

To borrow a phrase from the title of former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone: If voting changed anything they would abolish it

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