A DUP MLA at the centre of a row over “intimidation” at a public meeting to discuss cuts to health services in Londonderry has said the protesters responsible have hurt their own cause.
Foyle DUP MLA Gary Middleton said he and DUP Councillor Hilary McClintock were “forced out the back door” amid “intimidation” from protesters.
The protest was held as part of the ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaign, held at a public consultation event in the Verbal Arts Centre in Londonderry last night to discuss what the Western Health and Social Care Trust call a “savings plan” to shave a significant chunk from the health care budget.
One of the protest’s organisers, People Before Profit’s Shaun Harkin, said it was wrong to characterise the protests as intimidatory, adding that “trade unions, political parties and disability rights groups” had supported it.
Gary Middleton, however, said the protests were “aggressive” and had “singled out” the DUP.
He said: “I was over there in the cityside of Londonderry, somewhere where many unionists won’t go for fear of intimidation. All this will do is cause more distress to the people who rely on the heatlth service.
“It is so sad that people came along to a public consultation event and weren’t able to have their say. It wasn’t just the DUP singled out, even though yes, we got the brunt of it.”
Mr Middleton said: “We are against cuts to the health service but we are not going out and shouting at people and being aggressive to get our point across. I think that hurts your own argument and unfortunately I think that is what has happened in this case. It is not the way to go about it.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster also condemned the incident, saying: “Gary Middleton MLA and Councillor Hilary McClintock were intimidated and heckled to such an extent they had to leave the meeting.”
She added: “I condemn this bullying behaviour. This is not how democratic politics should work. This approach resembles a fascist society rather than a democratic society. Whilst there will be differing views in public meetings, people should not be surrounded and forced to leave by an emergency exit. Their point should have been heard and respected.”
Shaun Harkin, however, said: “Yes, there was anger and outrage in Derry tonight but this is because of what’s happening to our health service. We know we are expressing what people across Derry, across Foyle, across the North West, from all communities, feel about these cuts to the NHS, to education and privatisation.”
He continued: “The DUP’s Gary Middleton and Arlene Foster are missing the point of the protest. People were there to protest the cuts. Middleton is surprised people spoke out of turn and with passion at the meeting! He’s surprised people interrupted Trust management speak! He obviously isn’t talking to nurses, domiciliary care workers, ambulance drivers and people on waiting lists. If he and Arlene Foster are opposed to the health cuts, what are they doing about it? Why are they propping up Theresa May’s austerity government? He should have stayed and listened to people’s frustration with the Western Trust, the entire consultation process and relentless austerity.”
Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan also spoke out following the incident, condemning what she termed “abusive behaviour”.
“The abusive behaviour at tonight’s [Tuesday] consultation meeting was wrong and should be condemned,” said Ms Mullan.
“It does nothing to aid the campaign against Tory/DUP cuts to public services.”
Ms. Mullan added: “Public debate and discourse should always be carried out in a dignified and respectful manner.