We could lose Irish unity referendum over the NHS: SDLP leader

Colum Eastwood has acknowledged that one especially big stumbling block lies in the way of winning a referendum on Irish unification: namely, the NHS.

By Adam Kula
Monday, 24th January 2022, 12:14 am
Eastwood
Eastwood

The SDLP leader was among those speaking on a panel discussion at the weekend, put together by a group called Ireland’s Future, and broadcast via YouTube and social media.

Whilst he said it is his belief that “the UK is coming to an end”, he conceded that the Republic of Ireland’s health system is a major turn off as far as re-unifying the island goes – even for people who are convinced nationalists.

“If I was running the anti-unity campaign, I’d just be running ads about how much it costs to go to the doctor,” he said.

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“My own mother would have some difficult conversations about that...

“The idea we could run a campaign going into it saying ‘you’re going to have to pay 60 Euros or whatever it is to see a doctor’, we will lose the campaign on that alone.

“And that’s talking to ordinary nationalists, never mind unionists.”

Joining him on the panel was Sinn Fein national chairman Declan Kearney, who agreed that “health is pivotal”.

All of this comes in the run up to the next NI Assembly election, expected to take place this coming May, which unionists fear could return Sinn Fein as the largest party in the PAt one point in the online discussion, the host remarked that “people in the north are constantly shocked by the fact you’ve got to pay 50 or 60 quid to go to the doctor in the republic even if it’s only something you know is rather minor”.

Aoife Moore, a journalist for the Irish Examiner, originally from Londonderry, was among those on the panel.

“My own mammy I’m sure wouldn’t mind me saying she would quite like a united Ireland but she has told e in no uncertain terms she will not be paying to go to the doctor,” she said.

“It’s not something northern people want to give up – nor should they give up.

“I live in Dublin, and the first time I went to the doctors I was out the door and the recept had to call me back and say: There’s a card machine there and you need to pay...

“It’s 60 Euro every time I go to the doctors! That’s even if want a repeat prescription I have to go back and pay 60 Euro.”

She went on to add that even though such fees are built into the southern system, “the health service in the south is not, because you’re paying for it, any better – it is also buckling,” just like the free-at-the-point of delivery NHS.

Whilst acknowledging that the NHS is a huge selling point for the Union, Mr Eastwood also told the panel that it is not perhaps as much of a clinching issue as it once was.

It is, he said, “not quite the argument that it used to be”, because of the dire strain now being felt in the UK health system.

“My office is inundated with people who are languishing on waiting lists for years upon years,” he said.

“It is absolutely shocking. the health service is at point of collapse.

“That has to be fixed regardless of whether we’re in a new Ireland or still within the UK...

“I am a massive supporter of the NHS. I want to see helathcare free at the point of delivery. But I also want to get access... and if you can’t get access I think the conversation begins to change a wee bit.”

Mr Kearney likewise indicated that change is needed in the health systems on both sides of the border, rathern than being “simply about taking the north and bolting it onto what exists in the south”.

Instead, he said “health needs to be understood as a right” and any new 36-county Ireland must be “rights-based”.

Responsibility for health services is devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations.

In 2018/19, health services expenditure per head was highest in Northern Ireland (£2,436 per head) and lowest in England (£2,269 per head).

All three devolved regions of the UK have abolished prescription charges.

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