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This Election in Norn Iron Mentalists – Part Three: The Nationalists

Posted May 02 2010 8:06am

So, last time we had a look at the mental health issues in the manifestos of the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland. Today it’s the turn of the two main nationalist parties, Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

There is a certain curiosity in the potential influence of both of these parties. SF, perhaps unsurprisingly, may take a certain amount of interest in the politics of the Irish Republic, discussed mainly in its Parliament, the Dáil. In that regard, their policies might not necessarily fit a similar pattern to those of the other Northern Ireland parties, which are more likely to be influenced by their colleagues in Westminster. More surprising is the fact that, despite their status as supporters of a United Ireland, it’s quite possible that the SDLP are influenced similarly to the Unionist parties. They are, in fact, Northern Ireland pseudo-surrogates of the UK Labour party.

There has often been arguments from many voters here, me included, that because we don’t have any of the three main UK parties (or, indeed, Dáil parties) that our voice is not heard in Westminster (or Dublin). The Labour party try to get around this by citing their loose association with the SDLP – but, at least as far as many unionists perhaps unfairly see it, the SDLP only represent the nationalist side of the community, and therefore are not a party that can convey their needs and views. Of course, the Ulster Unionist Party are now allied with the UK Conservatives – but the SDLP shoe still fits, simply in a different way; not many nationalists see the UUP as a party that can represent them. The Liberal Democrats briefly mooted the possibility of setting up their own branch here, but to the best of my knowledge, that never came to proper fruition.

To that frustrating end, it might seem favourable that the SDLP have some alliance in London; the problem often is, however, that they seem to take the Labour whip without due regard for their actual constituents (to be fair, this is a problem in many, if not all, seats). I’d always thought of them as a good constituency party until last week when I watched the Northern Ireland party leaders’ debate, and Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP admitted that her MPs voted with the Labour party more often than not.

Still, they take their seats, unlike SF. To be fair, the SF rationale is that – as Irish Republicans – they do not wish to swear allegiance to the UK monarch. I really do understand that issue of principle, but the difficulty is that it complicates the party’s ability to lobby the Westminster executive. SF contend that Westminster is becoming decreasingly relevant to Northern Ireland, what with our devolved government at Stormont. In some ways that is true, as we decide on the allocation of fiscal resources. On the other hand, the overall source of those fiscal resources is, ultimately, still London.

So, how would each of these two parties allocate this capital? Will they consider mntal health provision as a priority?

My first reaction to what I see of SF’s mental health policies is one of encouragement. I suppose one should expect reasonable discussion on matters like these from a party that is, broadly speaking, socialist in nature, but it’s still nice to see it in black and white.

The first article of interest to me was this one from the West Tyrone branch of the party. Here SF discuss the provisions – or, maybe more accurately, the lack thereof – for forensic patients.

Anyone who knows me will know that crime is one issue on which I am relatively right-of-centre. I believe in retribution, and public protection, at least for the most serious crimes. However, I do make an excepton for individuals with serious mental ilnesses who are clearly not fully cognisant of the folly or danger of their actions. I resent people simply claiming mental illnss as some sort of excuse, but in genuine cases, the personnel concerned need to be treated as patients to be rehabilitated and treated, and not as criminals. I don’t have the statistics to hand, but I understand that in most prisons in the UK and Ireland, at least a significant minority of prisoners have serious mental health trouble. Would these people really present a danger to society if their illnesses were adequately managed and treated? How can incarceration lead to their recovery?

SF clearly concur that services for forensic patients are wholly inadequate. As councilor Declan McAleer says:

Rather than treating these people as patients in need of care and support, they are frequently treated as ‘felons’ and find themselves being shuffled between court appearances, case conferences and confinement.

This lack of a proper joined up approach… prolongs the day when they are restored to full health.

Councillor McAleer then points out that, with the recent devolution of justice and policing to the Northern Ireland assembly, hopefully there will be increased communication between the health service and criminal justice service here. Since the devolution only took place last month (April) it is of course far too soon to say whether or not there has been much progress in this regard, but it is a situation that I will continue to monitor.

The document further contends that a high security unit is a necessity here in the province; it is claimed that 78% of males and 50% of females in our prisons have personality disorders. We only have one medium security unit; any patients/prisoners requiring high security are presently sent to Great Britian. I should imagine that sending them to a unit far from their home, friends and family would be a serious inhibition to their recovery.

Moving on from forensic matters, SF have what I feel is a very positive message about mental health service provision, as published in this page of Republican newspaper An Phoblacht. They detail four key mental health issues that they intend to address, specifically as part of their 2010 General Election manifesto:

• Implement proposals of the Bamford Review and raise awareness about mental health issues
• Pursue implementation of an all-Ireland suicide prevention strategy
• Support the ‘card before you leave’ system to provide vulnerable patients at Accident and Emergency units with advice, contact numbers and follow up appointment details
• A new system to provide dedicated perinatal mental health services on an all-Ireland basis, ensuring that pre-natal and post-natal patients can be cared for with their new-borns when this is required

Four objectives don’t sound like an awful lot – but (a) they are four sensible, achievable goals and (b) although other parties do have positions on mental health service provision, as far as I have seen none of them have directly detailed their policies in this area for the 2010 election.

Finally on Sinn Fein, I’d like to draw your attention to this article . This relates specifically to the Republic of Ireland, but is nevertheless relevant to voters in Northern Ireland, as it shows SF’s position on mental illness and privisions for same. In essence, this piece discusses “savage” cuts from the local health Trust, meaning the closure of an acute unit and a day unit. The SF Dáil leader and spokesman on health in Eire, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, expresses his concern and anger at the prospect in this article, and details how he has lobbied the Republic’s health minister to seek assurances that the closures will not take place as planned. In particular, Ó Caoláin is concerned with the closure of the day unit in question, as it helps to prevent institutionalisation, something the Republic has sought to minimise through various initiatives. All in all, SF’s protests at these cuts seem encouraging.


The SDLP believes that good mental health is imperative to an individual’s general well being.

Such insight!

To be fair, like SF, they do lay out objectives which, whilst small in number, are potentially achieveable and not some sort of spin doctored pipedream. This booklet was written as their manifesto for the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, but I cannot imagine that the points therein are no longer normative; particularly with the ongoing discussion of the Bamford Review in mental health, these points are surely still relevant. The positive message of them is unlikely to be something on which the party would renege.

Essentially the SDLP would also seek to deliver an all-Ireland suicide prevention strategy, seek to build a cross-border forum on mental health issues and address “as a matter of urgency” what they call the chronic lack of services in both child and adult psychiatry and mental health in general. In part this would be achieved through full implementation of the recommendations by Bamford. I note that their comments here are essentially an elaboration of their 2005 General Election manifesto , thus giving further weight to the idea that their policies will remain broadly similar now. For what it’s worth, here is their 2010 manifesto – but it is disappointly sparse in its discussion of mental health issues.

The document also fixates on human rights for those that are mentally unwell. Although it does not specifiy the current infringements, we all know that this is a big issue for the mentally ill – in particular in regards to involuntary hospitalisation. The party also note that mental health service provision for adolescents is particularly crap, and claim that this would be a key point for them to address.

On that note, I was really pleased to see this piece on the SDLP Youth site discussing how a delegation of young people from not only the SDLP but all the other main parties plus the Alliance and the Greens launched their very own mental health strategy in Belfast in April last year. It makes a wonderful change to see the typical boundaries transgressed in the name of unity on such an important issue, and is to the credit of all the youth branches, not just that of the SDLP.

And…well, that’s about it really.

Although their siding with Labour at Westminster does annoy me (despite my earlier whinging that we need representatives from here in the main UK parties), I have always had respect for the SDLP. I don’t agree with them on every issue, of course, but their relative lack of fixation on the whole Ireland/UK debate was refreshesing from a party who were still intrinsically linked to that mode of thinking.

However, I must report that I am rather underwhelmed by their policies on mental health service provision. I’m not a one-issue voter by any means, but this is clearly an arena of much importance to me, and I would have thought a socialist party who would seem to be all for the NHS system would have had more to say on conditions that will, at any given time, affect one in four of us.

I’ve never been Sinn Fein’s biggest fan because their primary aim has always been the unification of this island. I don’t object to that per se, but it’s similar to the beef I have with their unionist counterparts, the DUP – there are so many more important issues than where the fucking border lies. However, I must admit that I am really rather impressed with the time they’ve taken to outline their position on mental health issues and, in particular, that the goals that they’ve set are not just there to look good – I believe that their manifesto aims in this area are actually quite obtainable, and they have given more space to writing about mental illness and provision therefore than any of the other parties other than, shockingly, the DUP.

But having said that, as with all articles from political parties, one has to ask oneself how much of it is rhetorical and how much of it they would really implement. My current thinking is that they are probably fairly well-intentioned in making all these pledges – but how much of it gets lost in the big pile of bureacratic shite that our politicans have to deal with? It remains to be seen.

Based on the literature, though, as far as the provision of mental health services goes, SF beat their nationalist rivals hands down.

Next time: a look at the Alliance Party and some of the smaller parties that are running for office, plus my conclusions on which party is offering the most to us Norn Iron mentalists.

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