Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Will McGimpsey's Budget fight see him Left behind?

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey

I wonder if Michael McGimpsey ever looks at any of the widely-available archive pictures of the demonstration in Derry on October 5, 1968 which marked the beginning of the civil rights period.

If he looks closely, he'll see six placards bearing the slogan '"Tories are vermin" - Nye Bevan'. I know there were six because Eamon Melaugh and myself made them the night before.

The quote from Bevan was used because we thought its tone might suit the occasion and also because, for as long as I could remember, Aneurin Bevan had been a great hero in our house.

Bevan was Minister of Health in Attlee's post-war government. His politics were not as radical as his passion on public platforms often suggested.

But his greatest achievement - the establishment of the National Health Service - gives him a high place in any ranking of British politicians of the past century.

The remark "Tories are vermin" came during a Commons debate in which the Conservative Opposition was arguing against the notion of free healthcare for all, provided by the State, from the cradle to the grave.

My father quoted it any time a Tory did anything of which he deeply disapproved, which meant we used to hear it a lot.

The party Bevan railed against was, of course, the same party that Michael McGimpsey's party was aligned with at the last Westminster election.

Which makes it all the more startling that he has taken to quoting Bevan's words on Hearts and Minds and is being denounced on this account by some who successfully advertise themselves elsewhere as tremendously Left-wing altogether.

A couple of weeks back, what one commentator described as "open warfare" broke out across the Executive table as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness tongue-lashed McGimpsey with, according to another minister, "ferocity and brutality". They pair were apparently not mollified by McGimpsey responding in "a whispering purr".

McGimpsey says that health needs a lot more money if even a glimmer of Bevan's vision is to be sustained.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have told him to stop "scaremongering" and start wielding the axe.

McGimpsey claims that the level of cuts being asked of him would mean the loss of 4,000 jobs. "I have been in business all my life and we're running out of money. There are not huge savings to be made. Anyone who works in the health service will tell you they are already overstretched."

If he buckled under DUP/Sinn Fein pressure, he says, wards and even hospitals might have to close and a number of specific projects - the radiotherapy unit promised at Altnagelvin, for example - could not be staffed, or equipped.

The health unions, health professionals and the statistics support McGimpsey. The number of patients waiting more than 12 hours in emergency departments - a good measure - is soaring and the waiting-lists for beds is lengthening again.

The other area within McGimpsey's remit is social services, where the pressure to restrain spending is even greater. Senior social workers seem in desperation when they talk about child-protection. Care packages for the elderly and mental health provision are also in crisis.

"There will be situations where care workers are saying to elderly people that they need 20 hours of care, but they can only afford 10," says McGimpsey.

In fact, this is already happening on a widespread basis in every trust area and is having a devastating effect on the lives of both elderly people and their carers.

It is against this background that McGimpsey has been demanding more resources and earning denunciation from the DUP and Sinn Fein for "posturing". His refusal to accept the cuts quietly is characterised by Peter Robinson as "obscene".

When Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan tried to defend McGimpsey in the Assembly, he was flattened by Robinson for "making a fool of himself".

"If anybody had predicted this years ago, they'd have been told they were mad", it's regularly observed of developments in the north. We could go further.

If anyone had remarked, as the batons cracked down on the skulls of civil righters in Derry on October 5, 1968, that one day an Ulster Unionist would be going into battle to defend Bevan's legacy and would be savaged by the radical street politicians of the day for his pains, he or she would have been consigned to one of the facilities now threatened with closure.

I wonder what my father would have made of it all.

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