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Nurses to get freedom of Belfast for service during the Troubles

By Rebecca Black

Belfast's brave nurses who cycled through gun battles and treated bombers and victims with equal care are set to be honoured with the freedom of the city.

They will follow in the footsteps of Van Morrison, and Dame Mary Peters.

Next week Belfast City Council is expected to agree to offer the freedom of the city to the Royal College of Nurses on behalf of those carers.

The motion will be jointly proposed by Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh and Alliance councillor Michael Long to the December meeting of the full council.

It reads: "Over many decades our nurses have served the citizens of Belfast without fear or favour. During the most difficult days of the Troubles, our nurses cared for every citizen regardless of circumstances, of religious or political belief."

Mr McVeigh and Mr Long's motion goes on to propose that one day be set aside each year in honour of nurses.

"It is our hope, that working with the RCN, a single day in the year will be identified when every citizen of Belfast, including this council, will thank our hard-working nurses for the care they provide all year round," they said.

"We hope that this Nurses Day will become a popular opportunity for every citizen to express their thanks to these exceptional individuals, who often go well above and beyond what they are paid to do.

"On behalf of every single citizen we want to thank each of you, our nurses, for the exceptional care and attention you provide every single day of the year."

The motion is expected to be passed without opposition.

Three years ago the RCN produced a book, Nurses' Voices From the Northern Ireland Troubles, detailing some of the experiences of its members.

One of those who worked on the project was retired nurse Margaret Graham.

She said many nurses she spoke to still get flashbacks from the traumas.

Mrs Graham worked as a nurse from 1971 and trained at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

One of the memories that sticks out was arriving into work one day to see the ward cleared and huddles of doctors waiting to receive those injured in the bombing of the Red Lion pub on the Ormeau Road.

"For me it was quite an overwhelming, even petrifying experience to have little knowledge and expecting people in from casualty," she said.

"All of that was a bit of a blur, we worked very late that evening and my only worry was the alarm going off early the next morning to get back on to duty.

"It became normal because the Royal and the Mater, in the locations where they were, things were bad.

"For us in the Royal we were stepping over guns, walking round them, there were armed guards. You could have a patient who was a paramilitary or security person, there was a guard for safety. Then if it was a police guard the army would be in guarding them. But in those times you didn't know any different until peacetime came."

Later Mrs Graham worked as a community nurse in north and west Belfast, and would check radio news bulletins to try and avoid any incidents. While she said she was lucky, other colleagues had to pass through gun battles to reach their patients.

"I think a lot of us look back at those times and wonder how we got through it," she said.

"You would have visited a lot of families who the Troubles had touched closely, either through family members killed because they were security forces or because they were paramilitaries,

"We were seen as neutral. People knew you as a nurse and people who could be trusted. You had the respect of the community."

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