The future of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital remains unclear as the controversy becomes embroiled in poisonous political point-scoring.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has said it received a letter from the Irish health minister on Wednesday afternoon in which he confirmed his commitment to the project.
The letter arrived just hours after outgoing Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said he did not have the money to fund the running costs of the building.
Irish minister for health Dr James Reilly has said he is confident that plans for the unit will proceed after May’s Assembly elections.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the DUP’s Jim Wells have both said the decision to halt development on the planned unit will be reversed. Branding Mr McGimpsey’s decision “sectarian”, Mr McGuinness said: “I would urge people not to panic. If you can be sure about anything in life, you can be sure that this radiotherapy centre will be built. I will ensure and guarantee that it is built.”
Mr Wells said work to develop the unit will continue if his party takes the health portfolio in May.
Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott weighed into the row and hit out at the Deputy First Minister.
“For Martin McGuinness to seek to introduce sectarian politics into health is an absolute disgrace,” he said.
“People will note the contradiction that someone who has admitted to being a senior member of the IRA — an organisation which spent nearly 30 years filling our hospitals and our morgues as a result of its bombings, beatings and shootings — should pretend to care about the health and wellbeing of anyone.
“How many millions of pounds were wasted over the years in clearing up the wreckage left by the IRA in our towns and cities? That was money that could and should have been invested in all our local services, including health.”
Mr Elliott said Mr McGimpsey developed proposals for the new radiotherapy centre, and that the UUP remains committed to the project being completed.
“I regret that Martin McGuinness did not support the provision of the money to do so in the recent Budget,” he added.
Mr McGimpsey also strongly defended his decision, which he said had been made on financial grounds.
He said: “In response to Sinn Fein and DUP claims that this is a decision which they will reverse if they have the health portfolio in the next Assembly mandate, they need to answer questions as to how they would fund the project.
“Do they plan to close one or more hospitals? Would they implement cuts to frontline services such as GP and health visits? Would they go for reductions in funding for domiciliary care? Perhaps they would prefer massive jobs cuts in the health service? Do they plan to re-introduce prescription charges or begin charging people to see their GP?”
Outgoing Health Minister Michael McGimpsey first expressed doubts over the future of the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in December when details of the draft Budget were announced.
He said that although the money may be available to build the unit, he couldn’t give a commitment regarding the running costs for the lifetime of the project — required for the business case for the development to be approved.
Training and recruiting staff for the unit will take many years and requires investment now, which Mr McGimpsey has said is not available.