Furious reaction to military medic comment morphs into political brawl

A furore sparked by a statement from the Unison trade union has morphed into a gigantic political dogfight – all centred around whether the military should be helping out on Covid-19 wards.

Thursday, 21st January 2021, 7:45 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st January 2021, 8:53 pm
Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit (which has one MLA, him, and five councillors in NI - two in Londonderry, three in Belfast)

Today saw recriminations fly between political rivals with opposite positions on the issue, whilst a huge wave of people on Twitter and Facebook heaped scorn on Unison for its perceived hostility to involving Armed Forces medics in civilian care.

It all began with an announcement that 110 military medics will be joining the existing roster of doctors in Northern Irish hospitals, as they battle with a surge in coronavirus patients.

Late on Wednesday night, the Unison trade union issued a message which said it was “urgently seeking detailed reasons for this decision” and “demanding to see information in relation to staffing pressures”.

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A tsunami of negative comments followed from people who interpreted the message as meaning the union objects to the military medics.

The crescendo of criticism was such that at 2.30am Unison’s regional secretary Patricia McKeown posted another message, saying the first one had been “misunderstood”.

“To be absolutely clear Unison has not objected to assistance from military personnel,” she said.

“Our request is for detailed information on how, when and where external personnel will be deployed.”

This did little to mollify angry social media users, many of whom said they were Unison members, but will now quit or are considering it.

Politicians soon added their voices, with UUP leader Steve Aiken calling the union’s comments “appallingly inappropriate”.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said: “Whoever in Unison decided to complain about this sensible proposal is a disgrace, and should be challenged by those members of Unison who are interested in doing their jobs and not playing politics with our health service.”

The TUV dubbed them “shameful” and PUP man John Kyle (a long-serving doctor) said they were “ridiculous”.

After this flurry of statements, the row continued in Stormont, at a meeting of the health committee.

Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan told the committee: “My only concern is that they [the military medics] don’t get in the way of the real professionals who are doing the work to save lives.”

Deputy committee chair Pam Cameron (DUP) said she was “astounded” and “flabbergasted” at Mr Sheehan, asking: “Is he trying to say that medical professionals from the military are not real professionals?”

UUP health spokesperson, Alan Chambers dubbed the comment simply “pathetic”.

People Before Profit (PBP) issued statements today attacking military involvement.

Gerry Carroll, the sole MLA for the party, which designates as OTHER in the Assembly (and draws much of its support from traditionally nationalist/republican areas) said the use of military medics was “a calculated stunt designed to stoke divisions and deflect from the Executive’s disastrous handling of the pandemic”.

Instead, he said: “The only sensible course is to take urgent, radical action to put the huge resources at the disposal of the private health care sector under public ownership. This would open up new beds; relieve pressure on our staff; and make available urgently needed space and equipment.”

Meanwhile PBP Londonderry councillor Shaun Harkin said that “the DUP never misses an opportunity to attack trade unions”.

The Department of Health this morning said there were 21 more Covid-linked deaths, taking the total to 1,692.

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Alistair Bushe