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Suzanne Breen: Our NHS is on its knees, yet all we care about are flags and the Irish language

Fat chance our big two parties will be punished for mess they have left us in

Nurses in Northern Ireland plan to take strike action on December 18 (Peter Byrne/PA)
Nurses in Northern Ireland plan to take strike action on December 18 (Peter Byrne/PA)
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

One thousand people at the Ulster Hall. The British Prime Minister denounced, impassioned speeches from young folk and older hands, the pledge that citizens will not stand idly by if London continues to let them down.

Why aren't we filling halls over our crisis-hit NHS? We should be beating the Lambeg drum - and all others - over our rocketing waiting lists.

We put feet on the streets over issues not a fraction as important as our collapsing health service.

Of course, both communities here have a right to vent their anger over whatever they choose. But an invisible border in the Irish Sea and an Irish Language Act pale into insignificance when compared to the life-and-death matter of healthcare.

I am truly scared. Scared about what will happen if my elderly mother, my kids, or myself fall ill. We're approaching the end of the Westminster election campaign, but the wisest words I've heard during it weren't from any politician.

They were spoken by Dr Brendan O'Hare on BBC Northern Ireland's superb Spotlight documentary last week. "I cannot understand why this population is so docile," he said. "If you trample on their cultural identity, they will riot in the streets. But if their grannies' legs are literally falling off they just accept it as 'that's life'."

Loyalists have blocked roads over flags and republicans have picketed Hillsborough Castle over Acht na Gaeilge but lip-service is paid to our health crisis.

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The record of our two biggest political parties is atrocious. Arlene Foster defended the decision of former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells to break pay parity between our NHS workers and those in Britain.

She said he recommended the move only because he was confronted with "a very limited budget after five years of austerity".

Why then for the last two years did the DUP keep in government the very party responsible for that austerity?

And what did Sinn Fein do to overturn the pay decision when it held the health portfolio? Zilch. Michelle O'Neill, just like Simon Hamilton before her, continued the policy.

Of course that little fact didn't stop O'Neill standing with those very same staff on the picket line at Altnagelvin Hospital. And Foyle MP Elisha McCallion had the temerity to tweet: "Sinn Fein is on the side of workers".

A staggering 300,000 people - one in six of our population - are on a waiting list for a consultant-led appointment. A third have been waiting more than a year.

Only half of patients urgently referred with suspected cancer start treatment within two months - the medically recommend target is 95%. Tumours can grow rapidly in far less time. People are literally being condemned to death.

The Ulster Unionists have called for a healthcare emergency to be declared here. "Our waiting times would not be tolerated anywhere else. If they were occurring in England, Scotland or Wales, it would be a national scandal and heads would have rolled by now," the party's manifesto declared.

I'm sure there are many, many nationalists who share that sentiment. The next British government must intervene immediately. Repeating the mantra that health is a devolved issue and nothing can be done is holding the sick in Northern Ireland as political hostages.

People here are being used as pawns in a game to blackmail our politicians into restoring Stormont. Sinn Fein says we shouldn't have to sit at the back of the bus regarding language rights. The DUP demands we leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

Both parties have been massively remiss in securing equal treatment for us on healthcare. We deserve better.

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