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Protesters march on Stormont in their battle to save MS unit

By Chris Kilpatrick

Protesters battling against the closure of Northern Ireland's only Multiple Sclerosis respite unit are taking their fight to Stormont.

Patients and their families will travel from north Antrim today to hand over a petition urging health chiefs to reconsider shutting Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle.

So far, more than 10,000 people have signed the petition against the closure of the 32-bed hospital which also includes palliative care facilities.

Protesters plan to hand it over to Health Minister Jim Wells or members of the health committee.

"There has been a massive level of support throughout the area and fundraising to keep Dalriada open," SDLP councillor Donal Cunningham said.

"We will be travelling to Stormont tomorrow and then there will be another public meeting on Tuesday night.

"This is a cross-community, cross-political party effort. The whole community has responded to this threat on a vital service."

The Northern Trust says the unit's temporary closure until next March is part of a required spending reduction of £6.9m. It is part of £170m of cuts across the health service.

However, the MS Society has expressed serious concern about the move.

More than 4,000 people in Northern Ireland suffer from the debilitating condition.

Users of the hospital's MS services have launched legal challenges against the closure.

It is not just MS patients who will be affected.

The 32 beds at Dalriada are also used for patients requiring orthopaedic rehabilitation after surgery and palliative care.

The son of an 88-year-old man who has terminal prostate cancer said his family was distraught at the closure.

John Madden, principal of Roddensvale Special School in Larne, said: "Moving him now would be cruel and inhumane.

"All our time together is so precious. I should be spending quality time with my father rather than having to attend meetings and protests to make sure he gets the care he deserves."

On Friday, hundreds of school pupils joined hands to encircle the hospital in a symbolic gesture of defiance.

In one public demonstration in Ballycastle at the start of the campaign, more than 1,000 people turned out for an evening rally to oppose the closure plans and the campaign has since only grown in strength.

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