By Pat Lawlor – Organiser, NIPSA Belfast Health Branch (personal capacity)
On 21 st June, over 200 service users, carers and supporters crammed into a hall at Knockbracken Healthcare Park. After nine months of campaigning, the recommendations on the future of mental health and learning disability day centres were to be revealed by the Belfast Trust Executive.
It became evident the Trust had completely backed away on their initial proposals to close four day centres, outsourcing the services to the independent sector. This news was met with overwhelming joy by service users and carers, who clapped and cheering throughout the hall. But, while thrilled they had won, there was also anger and disgust from those who were forced to go through nine months of torment and uncertainty.
The recommendations will see the centres at Fallswater, Ravenhill, Whiterock and Everton remain open. A Day Services Planning and Implementation Forum, which will include representation from service users, carers and trade unions, will shape care going forward. A Day Opportunities Investment Fund will be established to extend the range of services.
The impact of the campaign and the humiliating turnaround by the Belfast Trust has not been lost on the campaigners. They recognised from the start the success of the campaign was dependent on building as wide as possible a united front of service users, carers, staff and supporters. A democratic and accountable steering group was set up to determine the principles and strategy of the campaign. This was supported by Unison, Unite and NIPSA, with an active membership in the centres. A key principle of the campaign was no acceptance of any cuts, closures or privatisation. This approach threw the Trust plans into disarray from the start.
The campaign was uncompromising and engaged local communities for wider support. Over nine months, the campaign held over 35 protests and gathered 16,000 signatures on a petition on regular stalls in Belfast city centre and local areas. Around 7,000 leaflets and 400 posters were distributed. More than 1,500 responses to the consultation were submitted, with over 95% in opposition to the plans. Every political party was challenged for support in the run up to the Assembly election in May. Under this pressure, Sinn Féin Health Minister Michelle O’Neill was forced to accept the campaign’s demands.
This campaign has been an overwhelming success. It is a living example of what can be achieved when a united, democratic, principled and uncompromising stance is taken by workers, communities and trade unions. If we are to face down the coming austerity of the Fresh Start Agreement, we must learn the rich lessons of this victory. Fourteen libraries across NI are facing having their opening hours cut to 45 hours per week, losing between 5 and 9 hours from their normal schedule. Many libraries already had their hours cut in 2015. A sham consultation is being carried out by Libraries NI. Chief Executive Irene Knox said they had little option but to reduce opening hours for libraries, despite figures showing the number of people using libraries is increasing.