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Westminster will be forced to listen if we speak with one voice

By Liam Clarke

This election campaign has been a bit of a gunk for our politicians. The old issues didn't play so well on the doorsteps. Canvassers and candidates I spoke to usually said that most questions were about living standards, health, occasionally education - in fact, the same sort of issues as would come up in other UK constituencies.

That was the ground war. The air war, conducted on TV and newspapers, was different. The DUP played up the prospect of increased influence at Westminster if, as most pundits are predicting, there is a hung parliament.

Sinn Fein, on the other hand, argued that Westminster was a waste of time and it could negotiate more effectively with the government on a joint Stormont delegation.

They can't both be right, but they could both be wrong.

Events will soon show that.

If the DUP does have a strong influence, as it may well do, it will depend what it negotiates for.

Nobody across the community will mind if it gets more money for us and turn Northern Ireland into an economic powerhouse, as its plan says. That would be a good start for Stormont, when MLAs come back.

If, on the other hand, it is also asking for legislation at Westminster to protect the flying of the Union flag on all public buildings and another law to provide "a new start on parading, including the abolition of the Parades Commission" (it pledges to "work alongside the loyal orders to achieve this"), then it is likely to put strain on the Stormont coalition.

That alone will make an incoming British Government loath to grant such requests without more consensus here.

British parties have already seen the meal we made over the Stormont House Agreement; they will not want that sort of thing in Westminster and they won't want to risk Northern Ireland going into crisis on their watch.

Sinn Fein appears to be softening a little towards the end of the campaign. It used to drop dire hints about the possibility of Stormont collapsing and pulled out of the Stormont House Agreement when it discovered there wasn't as much money in it as it thought.

Now there are faint signs of a row-back, with Caral Ni Chuilin talking of winning next year's Stormont election and others in Sinn Fein of continuing to work with the DUP.

Other Northern Ireland parties could also have influence; Lady Hermon and Naomi Long have been fairly effective as one-woman bands and the SDLP could also have a say, but probably a lesser one.

The thing about hung parliaments is that you don't have to have a majority, although it is much more comfortable if you do.

If, for example, Labour and Ed Miliband was depending on SNP support, the SNP might refuse to back them on defence spending and the DUP could step in if the numbers were right.

It is easy to imagine the Tories being in the same situation on another issue if they depended on the Lib Dems again. It all depends on the mathematics and the precise seat share-out across the board.

The ideal situation - and let's dream a little - is if there were a strong team of Northern Ireland MPs who worked out a joint approach for dealing with the government. On sensitive issues (like flags, parading and the past) they will also need Sinn Fein's agreement.

With a reasonable, united voice, concentrating on the achievable, local parties would make it far easier for national ones to make concessions and help us out.

A hung parliament, with local agreement, would give us tremendous leverage.

But, if we had to choose, a clear, united voice might be even more important than political arm-twisting.

We must ease the burden on our paramedics

I'm just back at work after a couple of days off sick, during which I was taken to hospital. It has happened to me a few times before. On each occasion I have been impressed with the first responders, the ambulance staff. They deserve their 1% pay increase the same as the rest of the UK.

Even John McPoland of the Ambulance Service management had to admit in a BBC interview that, on a personal level, he felt extreme sympathy with their case. He was naturally also concerned that the public should get a full service.

There are other ways to reduce the load than making paramedics do long overtime - sometimes 100 hours a month, according to the union.

One example is old people's homes, most of them private now. Despite being referred to colloquially as "nursing homes", some offer no nursing care and more offer it only on some wings.

Nurses are expensive. The result is that, if anyone has a fall, the staff often have no permission to lift them off the floor - it's a health and safety issue.

The fact is that they should have medical staff - if necessary on a pool basis - on hand to assess the situation, avoid needless call-outs and help other staff get the person to their feet to see how they are.

As a result ambulances are called regularly to some homes. In fact, staff have estimated that up to 80% of calls are for minor issues, though certainly not all to old people's homes.

There is talk of a "treat-and-leave" regime for paramedics. It makes sense - they put me right on one occasion as I was going to hospital - but should the strain of that be put on an overstretched emergency service?

The problem in the ambulances also goes back to Transforming Your Care, the blueprint issued by Edwin Poots as Health Minister.

The problem was that he wasn't given the money to implement it. Services were reduced but new ones weren't brought in to take the strain.

We should have minor injuries units all over the province to take the strain off hospitals, but there are few. This idea involved research in Cuba but has never been implemented.

GP shortages play a part. We haven't enough of them, and doctor-on-call services, introduced to give GPs some time off, need more equipment to avoid needless callouts.

Much was made of treating people in their homes, but then carer hours were cut. Now the main way they are cared for is to be given a red button to press, which normally results in an ambulance been called.

What we need is a well-motivated, competitively paid Ambulance Service that does not have so many problems dumped on it because of economies elsewhere.

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