Northern Ireland

People power helps shape NI's health service

Sarah Ewart travelled to England for an abortion
Image caption Sarah Ewart travelled to England for an abortion

In 2013, more so than in other years, the actions of ordinary people have helped shape the Northern Ireland health service.

People power came to the fore as often frustrated and angry men and women campaigned over the potential closure of residential care homes.

They also took to the streets over the retention of paediatric cardiac surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Those voices, did make a difference, albeit temporary at this stage.

There were also powerful and emotive stories highlighting the world of whistle-blowing and the care of the sick and vulnerable in Northern Ireland hospitals.

And on top of all that the word "gay" found itself in many of the headlines; "Edwin" and "Poots" were usually not far behind.

One story could lead to a change in government policy.

Sarah Ewart called for a change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland to include fatal foetal abnormality as grounds for termination.


Sarah had to travel to England for an abortion after doctors said her baby, who had a condition known as anencephaly, would not survive outside the womb.

The issue continues to divide opinion in Northern Ireland, but such was the outcry after Sarah's interview on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan programme that ministers reacted.

While fatal foetal abnormality is not a ground for abortion under Northern Ireland law, after decades of skirting round the issue, it is now very much back on the table.

In December, Justice Minister David Ford announced a consultation on how the law on abortion might be changed. If that happens, it will not come about easily.

The potential closure of residential care homes triggered two high profile apologies.

One from Health Minister Edwin Poots, the other from the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, John Compton.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that all NHS care homes in three of the five health trusts were earmarked for closure.

There was a massive public rumpus.

The result was a stay of execution - probably temporary - for some places that people currently call their home.

Image caption Mr Poots said when he took up the post it was never his intention to make old people cry or kill babies

The handling of such a delicate issue was a mess.


The health trusts believed they were acting in good faith, the health minister however reacted by a doing a U-turn instructing all five health trusts to drop contentious plans to close all of their state-run homes.

Shortly after his apology on the care homes debacle, Mr Poots said when he took up the post it was never his intention to make old people cry or kill babies.

His latter comment was in reference to the much-publicised potential closure of children's cardiac surgery in Belfast.

The running of this campaign was almost textbook like.

From the outset, the local charity, the Children's Heartbeat Trust, focussed attention on not only the care of children, but also the convenience to the service for parents.

Their lobbying also highlighted the possibility of an all-island children's cardiac service.

The campaign influenced the minister and led him to call for an independent review - one that families and staff believe will at last be thorough and fair.


The minister's stance on gay issues attracted strong criticism.

The minister's department spent almost £100,000 of public money defending a ban on gay men donating blood and on appealing a High Court decision that a ban on civil partners adopting children was illegal.

The courts went against Mr Poots resulting in gay couples in Northern Ireland now being able to adopt on the same basis as heterosexual couples.

On the donation of blood, the judge said Mr Poots displayed apparent bias that went beyond religious beliefs and into the realms of prejudice.

According to Mr Poots, that issue now rests with the health secretary in London.

Image caption David Haddock, seen here with his aunt and carer, was severely disfigured in a house fire in 1981

In a year when people have been shaking the system, a whistle-blower lifted the lid on a residential care home in County Antrim.


The former care worker's story also questioned the effectiveness of the regulatory body, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA). Yet again another review was ordered.

Sometimes in this job you make enemies, but more often friendships are formed.

East Belfast man David Haddock falls into the latter category.

He was horrifically injured in a house fire in May 1981, but thanks to a benefactor, he is now undergoing a hair transplant and constructive surgery.

The Belfast Health Trust had let him down seven times in as many months.

Of course there have also been major developments and for the better.

The number of 12 hour hospital breaches has been dramatically reduced across the 5 health trusts.

There are many new facilities for patients including pharmacies opening longer hours and health centres where more services are being provided under one roof.

The public also have more channels to air their views including through the Public Health Agency's 10,000 voices campaign. A highlight in the western area has been the opening of the new hospital for those with mental illnesses.

Signing off 2012's review I wrote: "On the eve of a new year, some stories will undoubtedly remain in the news. The hyponatraemia inquiry should end by June 2013 with its chairman, John O'Hara, completing the report into the deaths of five children in hospitals here.

"The outcome of the NI abortion debate and the publication of much-awaited guidelines are at the top of the health minister's in-tray, along with a decision on where the children's cardiac services are to be based...

"While the health minister, Edwin Poots, remains at the helm the big question is will he still be there in six months? Will the health service begin operating a seven day week?"

Twelve months later, it seems that many of these stories remain the same.

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