Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Aer Lingus here at last

Eric Waugh

Aer Lingus is due a belated welcome at Aldergrove. It tried before - but only in a half-hearted way. (Who would want to go to New York by way of Shannon?) Aer Lingus should have been on the runways of the second airport on the island, with a proper schedule, years ago.

Only the timidity and stand-offishness of an oft-subsidised, state-owned body, controlled by the cold hand of government, kept it away. Now under its own steam, profits have to come first. So it is back.

I have flown to New York with Aer Lingus and I recall a quite excellent cabin service. But that was BC - before cut-price. Has the smooth courtesy of the old operation survived the transition to no-frills flying and low fares? More of us northerners will soon be able to find out on shorter hops. This time round, though, it will be tough. Everyone knows air fares are far too low for the aircraft and airport facilities available. So, too many people want to fly too often. Very democratic, but hell on earth.

The result is something verging on a cattle-pen. Baggage is an absolute bind. (Ladies, I gather your eyebrow tweezers are once more permitted, but better check with security.) Did you see those midsummer overhead shots of check-ins at Heathrow the other day? One reason why I choose to drive on holiday, rather than fly. But then I enjoy the supreme luxury of having the time to spare. Not that today's flyers do not need it too - rising at dawn, as they must, to make a flight leaving at noon.

No wonder Dr Bill McConnell of the Western Health Board was rowing back furiously the other morning when taxed on the radio about the health tourists who live in Co Donegal but sign on for free health care in Co Derry.

No, he had not claimed that there were 20,000 doing it. But it was clear that a considerable number are signed up on the Health Service lists of GPs on the Northern Ireland side of the border - and using free hospital beds too.

Some, he reflected, had moved across the border to live in Donegal, but had not bothered to change their GP.

What a bind! But instead of paying their GP , they collude with friends to provide them with a bogus address on the Northern Ireland side so that they and their families can continue to avail of free treatment.

Dr McConnell observed that the practice occurred all along the border, as far as Newry. In fact, he said, it was also a problem in Scotland, where elderly sassenachs from south of the border were to be found claiming the free nursing care now available in Scotland but not in England.

The crunch for these cross-border dodgers comes, it appears, when, say, a Republic of Ireland infant is born in the Altnagelvin Hospital and, weeks later, the staff call at the Northern Ireland address to check on immunisation or whatever, to find that the family is not resident there and never has been.

This fraud would be bad enough if the Health Service was flush of funds and staff. But it is neither. Michael McGimpsey's empire in Northern Ireland has 70,000 employees and a budget of almost £4bn. But it is not enough. Patients whose sight could be saved by a new drug are being denied it on grounds of cost. Dementia and cancer patients are being similarly deprived. Other patients are waiting more than a year for their surgery.

So, if our fellow-Irish from across the border fancy our service, let them stop sponging and pay their whack - or sign up with the tax man and become legal like the rest of us. Meanwhile Dr McConnell should send the snoopers after them.

With Operation Banner past and gone, one hurdle remains for the Forces in this part of the state. How long is it going to take before we see servicemen and women on their normal occasions, on and off duty, as they used to be, about the place - unarmed and in uniform? I ask because I note that the army's plans for its garrison to use the wide open spaces of the six counties for the normal training exercises are already drawing fire from republicans. This will not do - if they claim to support the Agreement.

I speak as one who, during the Second World War, grew up when the cinemas, hotels, shops, churches and pubs in the towns and villages of this part of the UK were crowded with uniformed troops, by no means all British. There were 20,000 sailors from six navies billeted on the Foyle. Traders of all political persuasions made a great deal of money and we young people made many friends and amassed formidable collections of regimental badges. Operation Banner may be wound up, but normality is still some way off.

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