Thousands of people attended a rally in Downpatrick on St Valentine’s Day protesting against the reduction of services at the Downe Hospital.
With numbers in attendance estimated at between 12,000 and 16,000, traffic came to a standstill when farmers showed their support alongside school children, sports clubs, businesses and health workers as they walked in protest through the town.
The accident and emergency unit at the Downe Hospital has been closed at weekends since January 2014 with a shortage of qualified emergency doctors blamed.
Meanwhile, other wards in the hospital – which was officially opened in June 2010 – have seen their bed numbers cut.
Eamonn McGrady, chairman of Downe Community Health Committee who helped organise the rally, said: “The procession was led off by what was meant to be a token representation of the local farming community, but we had 102 tractors.
“It was an amazing spectacle reflecting the importance of the hospital to the agriculture community, given that agriculture is the most dangerous industry.
“There were people from right across the community and non-party political. It was a colourful demonstration with a tremendous amount of feeling.”
Mr McGrady said the lead group in the mile-and-a-half procession was members of the Downe Community Health Committee and local clergy.
Speeches were given by a number of individuals including DUP Ccouncillor William Walker, Mr McGrady and Unison spokeswoman Patricia McKeown.
“The thrust of my speech was directed towards the politicians that the people have clearly spoken, their views made clear and it is time to now resolve the matter,” said Mr McGrady.
“I said politicians now need to dictate the agenda to the public servants and to back the local services.”
Other politicians attending the rally included independent unionist MLA John McCallister, South Down MP Margaret Ritchie and South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell.
“This was certainly the biggest rally ever held in Downpatrick and we believe the biggest health rally ever held in Northern Ireland,” added Mr McGrady.
“Our theme on Valentine’s Day was that people love their local hospital and want to see the return of a full-time accident and emergency cover, as well as the recovery of coronary care and other wards.
“The feet on the street on Saturday said it all – this was real politics.
“What was shown loud and clear was that the present cover for the area is not sufficient given it takes around 45 minutes to get an ambulance to someone who is ill in Downpatrick. But it takes much longer for outlying areas like Ballymartin and Annalong.”
Independent Down councillor Patrick Clarke said the many thousands of people who attended the rally was a clear endorsement to restore, enhance and develop services at the Downe. He said the “people of Down and Mourne have clearly spoken in their thousands”.
Margaret Ritchie called for a further meeting with Health Minister Jim Wells following the “massive rally” which she said reflected the will of the people for the local hospital to be protected.
She said during the rally: “The people of Down and Mourne again demanded the resumption of key services including coronary care beds at the Downe Hospital.”
She added: “The people of Down and Mourne have spoken yet again and now they rightly demand that the minister for health protect the asset which the Department of Health approved, and the South Eastern Trust constructed some years ago, and develop and enhance the new Downe Hospital.”