A DUP MP has said the needs of Northern Ireland’s health service are far more pressing than demands concerning Irish or Ulster-Scots, as the latest dire figures about NHS waiting times were released.
Jim Shannon said it would have been a “better call” for the five parties who banded together for a photocall this week in support of an Irish language act – SDLP, Alliance, Greens, People Before Profit and Sinn Fein – to instead push health to the top of the agenda.
Mr Shannon also said that his party is “energetically” pursuing the £1bn which was pledged to the Province by the Tories as a result of the pact between the two parties – suggesting the process of releasing the funds could begin soon, regardless of whether direct rule takes place or a devolved government is established.
Meanwhile, the UUP described the latest batch of waiting list figures as “outrageous”, and said that Sinn Fein is “clearly putting more value on an Irish language act than a safe local health service”.
Thursday’s set of data from the Department of Health revealed that virtually a quarter of all patients awaiting their first consultant-led outpatient appointment have still not been seen for over 52 weeks – wildly beyond what the target is supposed to be, and a drastic worsening of the situation since this time last year.
In addition, the health service is drifting further off course from targets on medical tests and hospital admissions.
The Department of Health, in common with other departments, is currently run by civil servants instead of politicians due to the political deadlock.
Whilst meeting with top figures from four other parties on Wednesday at an event run by Irish group Conradh na Gaeilge, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams declared without an Irish language act, “there won’t be an Assembly”.
And in response to the fresh quarterly figures on the health crisis, Sinn Fein said “the DUP should end their opposition to rights and equality so that we can get local ministers back in place” – phrases it has often used when berating the DUP for opposing its plans for an Irish language act.
Meanwhile, Alliance demanded “immediate restoration of the Executive”, adding that “proposals already exist for a compromise on the issues”.
Whilst the exact demands from Sinn Fein for an Irish language act have never been made completely clear, it has been variously suggested it could cost £19m over five years (by campaign group Conradh na Gaeilge), whilst Nelson McCausland had been quoted as saying the cost of an act could be £100m per year or more.
A counter-suggestion for an Ulster-Scots act could also run into opposition over costs – the News Letter recently revealed that a leaked paper from the head of the Ulster-Scots Agency, presented to politicians during negotiations in spring, suggested a package of about £140m could be spent over the course of a decade on Ulster-Scots language and cultural activities.
About two weeks ago it was announced that £70m-worth of cuts were being sought across the Province’s health system over the next several months.
Mr Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford and an Ulster-Scots speaker, said: “I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s important to spend a fortune of money on the Irish language.”
He told the News Letter: “I’ve no problems whatsoever with it [the language] – it doesn’t bother me one bit. It’s the money that it’s going to cost, and it’s the Irish language act being used as a tool to beat the people.
“You know something? Health comes before the Irish language act. It comes before the Ulster-Scots language, by the way, as well. As a person who’s very interested in our culture, our history, and what we’re about, I see where our priorities are, and the people see where our priorities are: health, education, roads.”
Speaking of the five parties who gathered for Wednesday’s pro-Irish act photoshoot, Mr Shannon added: “Would it not have been better that the five parties had’ve got together and said: ‘You know something ... let’s get that money in the health service’? That’d have been a better call.”
Regarding that photoshoot, figures from the various parties involved moved to defend their positions.
Green leader Steven Agnew said Sinn Fein’s own manoeuvrings over Irish did not alter his party’s “long-standing support for indigenous languages across Europe”, whilst Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw said it “did not neccesarily want” the same kind of act as nationalist parties.
An SDLP spokesperson said it had been aiming for an Irish language act since long before the current Sinn Fein-led furore, while People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll suggested opposing such an act amounted to a failure “to join the 21st century”.